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…

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…