April 19, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Decca Most Wanted Recitals (Various)

Decca’s Most Wanted Recitals series continues. As before, the discs are digitally remastered but contain no biographical or musical notes. Most of this material has not been reissued since its first appearance decades ago. Some should have been left undisturbed, but these six releases contain much of interest. Baritone Hermann Prey (1929-1998) was overshadowed during his lifetime by Fischer-Dieskau, yet Prey has a lovely voice and a distinctive approach to Schubert’s Schwanengesang. Listen to his passionate, committed rendition of In der Ferne: not as detailed (some would say mannered) as Fischer-Dieskau but by no means bland. Walter Klein’s accompaniments support him all the way. Renato Bruson’s honeyed operatic baritone is revisited in a recital of Donizetti arias, recorded in 1979, including a duet from Donizetti’s Requiem where he is joined by Pavarotti. Bruson’s soft singing is exceptional. French baritone Gerard Souzay gives us two discs of Schumann, both containing the Dichterliebe. The earlier one, with pianist Jacqueline Bonneau, finds him in fresher voice in 1953 but the mono recording is rough. His 1960s Philips records with Dalton Baldwin are preferable; his voice is less stable at forte but his artistry remains supreme. He sings the Liederkreis Op. 24 and Op….

April 16, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Amorosi Pensieri (Cinquecento Renaissance Vokal)

For the past ten years Cinquecento have been carving themselves a niche in the specialised field of pre-Baroque sacred works, and madrigals by composers whom most of us have never encountered. Formed in Vienna and based in Germany, the group comprises six singers from five countries. For their eighth release on the British Hyperion label Cinquecento revisits three 16th-century Flemish singer-composers, Philippe del Monte, Jacobus Vaet and Jacob Regnart, this time performing their secular songs, and introduce us to a previously unknown composer. Not much is chronicled about Jean Guyot de Chatelet (Joannes Castileti), other than that he served briefly as Kapellmeister to Emperor Ferdinand I before returning to his home in Liege. However Guyot is not afraid to express his feelings, hence: “Instead of happy distractions, melancholy attacks me/I am bound by the ties of love/discipline holds me harshly prisoner”. Or his song about Susanne who has to fend off two dirty old men to preserve her innocence. These songs have all the colour and earthy life of the contemporaneous paintings of Pieter Brueghel and his sons and they sit well with the sextet’s pleasing vocal blend. Recorded at the Deutschlandfunk’s chamber music studio in Cologne, the program mixes…

April 11, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Pärt: Vocal Works (Layton)

This wide-ranging survey of Pärt’s choral music is the third disc of his music performed by Stephen Layton’s Polyphony. As with the other two recordings, the singers’ clarity and unanimity of tone confirm them as ideal interpreters of this music. An added attraction is that this program takes us to back to some of Pärt’s earliest choral writing: the austere Solfeggio of 1963. The haunting musical stasis of this piece belies its unswerving adherence to the rules of serialism. Seven years later Pärt’s setting of the Nicean Creed, Summa shows the composer emerging into his “tintinnabulist” period and embracing the so-called “holy minimalism” that has become a hallmark of his music.  Another movement charted by this disc is Pärt’s journey from the confines of Soviet-era Estonia into the freedom of the wider, multicultural world of the last quarter-century. The works recorded here demonstrate that Pärt’s style both transcends time and place, but is also influenced by people and history. Virgencita, a 2012 work receiving its first recording, celebrates the story of the apparition of the Virgin Mary at Guadalupe, Mexico and reflects both the tenderness and passion of its subject. The other first recording here is of Alleluia-Tropus (2008) which…

April 10, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: The Red of a Woman’s Heart

Soprano Lisa Harper-Brown and pianist David Wickham, both English but now based in Perth, have released a sequel to The Poet Sings (2012), their first volume devoted to neglected 20th-century Australian art song, and particularly by female composers.  The Red of a Woman’s Heart features three collections by Margaret Sutherland, including a cycle of William Blake poetry and six settings of Judith Wright, which for Wickham “are the best of the genre in Australia.” Many composers were still looking to England for lyrical material, so the Wright cycle is particularly significant, as are Raymond Hanson’s two settings of poems by the extraordinary Australian radical socialist poet Mary Gilmore. Other highlights include two sets by Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Profiles from China and Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.  There is a lightness of touch about this recording, with a great sense of presence and space that makes it an excellent complement to the selections recorded by Ian Munro and Elizabeth Campbell nearly a decade ago. The interplay between Harper-Brown and Wickham is seamless, as though the music is being produced by a single entity. Harper-Brown is completely at home with the demands of this excitingly varied material, from the dance rhythms…

March 30, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: La Belle Excentrique (Petibon, Manoff)

La Belle Excentrique could just as easily refer to the mildly eccentric French soprano Patricia Petibon as to Satie’s fantasie sérieuse for orchestra, two movements of which, arranged for piano four hands, grace this very enjoyable, very French musical potpourri. But don’t be fooled: Petibon, whose intelligence is as impressive as the formidable coloratura technique which served her so well in the baroque repertoire which for a time was her core business, also serves up some exquisitely sung chansons and mélodies by masters such as Léo Ferré and Gabrielle Fauré.  There is plenty of light here – but also plenty of shade. Such extremes are even found within the Satie pieces which make up the bulk of the instrumental music: witness pianists Susan Manoff – Petibon’s regular accompanist – and David Levi having a ball with Satie’s Cancan grand-mondain from La Belle Excentrique before Manoff surfaces again with a beautiful account of the same composer’s neo-baroque Désespoir agreeable. Some of the vocal works are enhanced by cello – Satie’s famous waltz Je te veux (with cellist Christian-Pierre La Marca), violin – Ferré’s gorgeous On s’aimera (Nemanja Radulovic is the violinist) and even, as is the case with Manuel Rosenthal’s dreamlike…

March 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Strauss: Complete Lieder (Fassbaender)

Think you know Richard Strauss’s songs? Think again. Chances are you know a handful, possibly a few dozen, but did you know there are over 190? Brigitte Fassbaender believes it’s the fault of lazy singers and audiences who happily listen to the same ‘Morgens’ and ‘Zueignungs’ time after time, never exploring other riches – and riches there are, several revealed for the first time in this beautifully curated box. Strauss wrote his first song, a charming Christmas ditty, aged six, and his last, Malven, in 1948 at the ripe old age of 78. In between he poured his heart and soul into a series that includes too many masterpieces to mention and remarkably few duds. These recordings, made in Garmisch, the small town where Strauss owned a villa involved 13 singers and Fassbaender herself as narrator of his two melodramas, one of which is the hour-long Enoch Arden. Not every singer is perfect (recording songs in their original – generally high – keys taxes a few), but all round it’s a first rate set, full of discoveries. Among the standouts are mezzo Anke Vondung who gives oodles of gooseflesh with her use of text, delicious high soprano Anja-Nina Bahrmann, and…

March 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mahler: Lieder (Gustav Mahler Ensemble)

Mahler once claimed that knowledge of his songs was the key to understanding his symphonic output. In order to prove this Argentinian mezzo, Bernarda Fink does a wonderful service by offering this excellent conspectus of Mahler’s lieder with a variety of accompaniments. In addition to some of his early songs with piano, we are given the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in Schoenberg’s version for chamber ensemble and Mahler’s own orchestration of the Kindertotenlieder. Unfortunately there was only room for four of the five Rückert-Lieder, two of which are performed here with piano and two with orchestra. One of the constant delights of this disc is the way Fink always puts her deeply expressive instrument at the service of the text. Key words are subtly coloured and phrases exquisitely shaped. We hear this from the outset but especially so in the Songs of a Wayfarer. Schoenberg’s clever arrangement gives them an intimacy and edginess closer to the world of Weimar Republic cabaret. Two melancholy songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn set the stage for the Kindertotenlieder. Orozco-Estrada and his forces summon up Mahler’s vivid but tender soundworld with considerable empathy. We are deprived of the orchestra in two of the four Rückert-Lieder presented here. Going from piano to orchestra is like going…

March 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Nature (Jane Sheldon, Nicole Panizza)

You only have to hear Dawn Upshaw or Barbara Bonney sing Aaron Copland’s exquisite Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson to know what’s wrong here. Perhaps it’s symptomatic of the kind of singers who seem more comfortable with early and contemporary music which ostensibly requires a certain coolness and detachment? Perhaps. But New York-based Australian soprano Jane Sheldon – who is a contemporary and early music specialist and whose North + South was nominated for Best Classical Album at the 2013 ARIA awards – seems ill-equipped to plumb the emotional depths of Dickinson’s poetry. Simply put, Upshaw and Bonney know how to tell a story; Sheldon does not. Even in Nigel Butterley’s Three Whitman Songs, poor ol’ Walt’s ecstatic visions suffer from Sheldon’s lack of convincing expressive gesture. She fares better in Peggy Glanville-Hicks’s Wallace Stevens’ settings, 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; poetry and music here require a more detached response; and indeed Sheldon’s voice does have a beguiling, flute-like beauty, especially in the upper register. Ross Edwards’s fine Judith Wright setting The Lost Man also sits well with Sheldon, and indeed elicits more warmth than is generally heard elsewhere. Throughout, Nicole Panizza’s playing is as subtle and sophisticated…

March 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: The Merton Collection (Choir of Merton College)

Set up less than a decade ago, the choir of Merton College is a relative newcomer to Oxford’s choral life, but in its short existence it has punched well above its weight. Unsurprising perhaps, given that one of its directors is Peter Phillips. The Tallis Scholars which Phillips also directs have been recording in Merton chapel for years, taking advantage of its splendid acoustic.  To celebrate its 750th year the college has undertaken two visionary projects to support the choral foundation. The first is the installation of a superb new pipe organ. The second is the creation of the Merton Choirbook, a collection of music commissioned from composers from around the globe including a work by Melbourne composer, Christopher Willcock, whose Missa Brevis will be premiered later this year. This program of mainly a cappella music is mostly traditional Anglican fare enlivened with more recent works, including some from the Choirbook. All of the music is beautifully sung, whether it be favourites such as This is the record of John (Gibbons), Hear my prayer, O Lord (Purcell) or Valiant for Truth (Vaughan Williams). Amongst the new music, the Nunc dimittis from Eriks Ešenvalds’s evening canticles, James Lavino’s Beati quorum via…

March 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: A French Baroque Diva (Ex Cathedra)

Carolyn Sampson has long avoided the harsh glare of stardom but become a favourite singer for “those in the know” – and if you are not one of those it is about time you were. She has graced an extensive array of fine recordings over the last decade or so, standing out amongst some starry casts with her impeccable technique and musicality. A few years ago she gave us a superb recital of Rameau arias, Regne Amour, in collaboration with Jeffrey Skidmore’s group Ex Cathedra and follows up with this delightful gem.  The program is a tribute to Marie Fel who was the superstar soprano of the French Baroque, captivating the Paris Opera and Concert Spirituel in a career lasting 35 years. She even inspired the philosopher Rousseau to compose a Salve regina included here. She was the darling of the intelligentsia and her 81 years were full of colourful incident, including bearing three children to three fathers.  If 73 minutes of French Baroque soprano arias might seem a daunting prospect with a whole lot of twittering trills and appoggiaturas, do not be fazed as this program has been cleverly chosen with sacred works, including an Italianate Laudate pueri by…

February 27, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Turina: Canto a Sevilla (BBC Philharmonic)

With this second disc devotedto the music of Joaquín Turina, the BBC Philharmonic and conductor Juanjo Mena present highly idiomatic and colourful evocations of the composer’s native region of Andalusia. Built around the song cycle that gives the disc its name, native soprano Maria Espada gives the most persuasive account of the orchestral song cycle since the old mono recording by Victoria De Los Ángeles (EMI). Not only is she successful at colouring this evocative score, Espada is highly sympathetic to the composer’s desire to bring his beloved home city of Seville so vividly to life with its gypsy rhythms and religious processions. As in the other compositions here, Turina brings an almost technicolor brillliance to these, and it is this quality, aided and abetted by the conductor, which makes this disc such an enjoyable experience. One must also applaud the sheer virtuosity brought to bear by an orchestra of the calibre of the BBC Philharmonic. Elsewhere, these almost electric interpretations bring Turina’s Andalusia to life, be it in La procesión del Rocio, Danzas gitanas or the more intimate sound world of Rapsodia sinfónica for piano and string orchestra wherein Martin Roscoe proves an ideal soloist. Recorded in such vivid, naturalistic…

February 20, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: Mass in B Minor (Arcangelo)

British conductor Jonathan Cohen has a refreshing lack of concern for apparently ‘sacred’, apparently never to be tampered with, performance traditions that can, and do, leave other performances of the B Minor Mass historically boxed-in. Cohen calmly reconnects us with JS Bach’s actual sacred inner-life. Like John Butt’s 2009 reading with the Dunedin Consort on Linn Records, intuition tells you that Cohen’s new B Minor Mass will be viewed kindly by history, the freshness of this conceptually rigorous and unified recording born of an active engagement with the material, rather than requiring the piece to slot conveniently inside an existing point of view. Not that Cohen has anything much in common with Butt. In Arcangelo, period and modern instruments coexist unapologetically, while the Dunedin Consort is an ideologically hardcore period instrument group. Butt unsurprisingly adheres to one-voice-to-a-part whereas Cohen deploys four voices – except in the Confiteor Unum Baptisma where he too reverts to one voice per part, appropriately framing Bach’s subliminal glance back to an older contrapuntal style. But the nuances of Cohen’s perspective run deeper than mere matters of personnel. Butt – alongside other recent interpreters on record: hello Marc Minkowski and Philippe Herreweghe – need you to…

February 20, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Vivaldi: Pietà (Philippe Jaroussky)

With this new recording featuring a selection of Vivaldi’s motets for alto voice, stellar French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky comes full circle a decade or so after his previous two recordings devoted to Vivaldi’s most virtuosic music. In doing so, he similarly demonstrates the operatic and concerto-like qualities of these ostensibly devotional works. This is music that delights in virtuosity, both subtle and exultant, as a legitimate form of praise.  If motets such as Clarae stellae, first performed in 1715 at the Ospedale della Pietà whose name is forever linked to that of the Red Priest’s, and Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater of 1712 demonstrate a more demure style with occasional melismatic outbursts, it’s a different story with the later Longe mala, umbrae, terrores. In the first section alone, Jaroussky must negotiate unrelenting roulades, which he does with uncompromising élan; likewise the final Alleluia which most obviously recalls an opera aria or the final movement of some lost violin concerto. But just listen to the honeyed, tender melismas in Descende, o coeli vox and Jaroussky reveals a truer, deeper artistry.  So with these works, which include an exquisite introduction to a lost Miserere, a gently throbbing Salve Regina and the Domine Deus from…

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