May 14, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor (Damrau)

When Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was premiered in Naples in 1835 there was as much drama off stage as on. The San Carlo opera house was on the verge of bankruptcy and the musicians hadn’t been paid. His diva, Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani, was miffed that the tenor Edgardo’s death scene comes after hers – this in spite of the fact that he stabs himself when he hears her death knell! To make things even worse the glass harmonica player, so vital for the mad scene, quit and the composer had to rescore it with a second flute. Fortunately conductor Jesús López-Cobos seems to have had a much easier time with this fine new release starring German soprano Diana Damrau and the popular Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja. Recorded from live concert performances in Munich over four nights, this is a good if not exceptional production. The two leads make a handsome vocal couple but there are occasional ragged edges that would have been airbrushed out in a studio recording. In the big duet Verranno a te sull’aure, for example, Calleja finishes well before Damrau.  However, these are minor flaws. The ensemble singing in the sextet is a standout and Damrau shines…

April 28, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Rachmaninoff: Songs (Iain Burnside)

Rachmaninov devotees have long treasured the masterly survey of songs by the late Elisabeth Söderström, accompanied by Vladimir Askenazy, and the Chandos set from the early ‘90s that gave us the correct voice types. Some 20 years later this current set is a welcome release and a strong rival.  Seven youngish Russian singers are heard here and all are fine artists and bring a great deal of Slavic intensity. Andrei Bondarenko’s rich baritone timbre caresses the ear and is superbly focused while Ekaterina Siurina’s bright forward tone is a delight and suits the lighter fare to a tee. Alexander Vinogradov, recently heard in a superb Shostakovich Babi Yar under Petrenko, has a sonorous instrument in the Russian bass tradition and does a fine job of vividly characterising those songs inspired by Rachmaninov’s friendship with Chaliapin.   Daniil Shtoda who sung a fine Fenton on Abbado’s 2001 Falstaff sounds splendid if occasionally betraying a little wear and tear on the top of the voice. Justina Gringyte has a formidable dark mezzo sound that can tingle the spine. Rodion Pogossov and Evelina Dobraceva are both noticeably of the old school with occluded tone and some good old-fashioned Slavic wobble, however Dobraceva’s dramatic…

April 27, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Choral Works (Cappella Amsterdam/Reuss)

Daniel Reuss has led Cappella Amsterdam for over half its 44 years, during which the troupe has released several dozen recordings of old and new music, mostly European. This catalogue of well-known secular Brahms choral works is bookended by two cycles of sacred motets. Brahms was himself the conductor of several middle-class choirs, and choral composition runs practically throughout his entire creative life. As in the grand polyphonic tradition of Palestrina and Bach, the harmony does the talking. Entire musicology lectures could be spun about any single phrase – so completely thought-through they are. Listening while following the text reveals how closely aligned are the harmony and the poetry. Reuss takes the unusual step of including a work for piano alone. But through the first ten minutes I had forgotten its existence, so alien is the world of liturgical choral music to that of the piano. Intermezzo is a welcome surprise, despite unadventurous playing. Though not always piercing in their intonation, the choir is persuasive, achieving in Schicksalslied a venomous timbre on the text “water hurled, from crag to crag” In the chorale of the title work, the phrase “Sanft und stille” (gentle and silent) was simple and breathtaking, just as…

April 26, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Music for Remembrance (Westminster Abbey Choir/O’Donnell)

While commemorations of the Word War I centenary continue, James O’Donnell and his Westminster Abbey forces perform music associated mainly with other conflicts to remind us of the horror and folly of war.  Taking up the lion’s share of this disc is Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem in its medium-sized incarnation for choir, orchestra, organ and soloists. Hyperion’s engineers have done a splendid job in balancing the relatively small choir against the orchestra in the abbey’s cavernous acoustics. Duruflé’s sincerity shines through his heartfelt score and O’Donnell elicits a very moving performance from all concerned, including soloists Christine Rice and Roderick Williams. English composers feature in the rest of the program. Vaughan Williams’s Lord, thou hast been our refuge is a poignant reaction to his first-hand experience of the so-called Great War, while Howells’s Take him, earth, for cherishing evokes the tragedy of President Kennedy’s assassination. Philip Moore’s Three Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are thoughtful and effective settings of the German pacifist pastor who was executed by the Nazis. John Tavener’s The peace that surpasseth all understanding forms the powerful conclusion to the program. Commissioned by the Abbey to commemorate the fallen of both world wars, its final “Om” reminds us of…

April 25, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Heroes from the Shadows (Stutzmann)

Nathalie Stutzmann’s new disc Heroes in the Shadows is an impressive demonstration of this artist’s multitude of musical talents, as she takes centre stage both as conductor and contralto soloist. The singer possesses a handsome contralto voice and demonstrates superb control over her instrument. Her fantastic coloratura technique is shown in the faster, flamboyant arias, most notably on the opening Dover giustizia, amor from Ariodante. Her musicality is laid bare during Non so se sia la speme from Serse, where she demonstrates instinctive understanding for colour and phrasing. She often reduces her vibrato during points of harmonic tension, which serves to highlight the drama in the ensuing resolutions. Despite her virtuosity, Stutzmann never overdoes vocal pyrotechnics during da capo sections, preferring to subtly augment the vocal line with occasional passing tones and trills. Philippe Jaroussky was a delightful choice for guest artist, and sings the duet Son nata a lagrimar from Giulio Cesare. His light, clean countertenor provides a balance for Stutzmann’s meatier tone. The orchestra, Orfeo 55, play with a bristling energy throughout. Cello soloist Patrick Langot, is to be commended for his delicate solo during Son qual stanco Pellegrino.  Heroes from the Shadows shows why Stutzmann has succeeded…

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…

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