September 29, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Ballads of the Pleasant Life (Peter Coleman-Wright, Nexas Quartet)

Australians can thank comic genius Barry Humphries for the revival of interest in songs from the interwar Weimar Republic in Germany. As a young man he trawled Melbourne’s used bookshops and found a collection of scores from composers such as Kurt Weill, Franz Schreker, Hanns Eisler and Alexander von Zemlinsky, among others – all of them obscure names (apart from Weill, thanks to Louis Armstrong’s then recent version of Mack The Knife). The discovery sparked a lifelong passion, so much so that he put on a Weimar show with “kamikaze” cabaret star Meow Meow and the Australian Chamber Orchestra a few seasons back. More recently, several classical artists have turned their attention to this period in music history and the composers that either went into exile across the world or died in the Nazi death camps. Now it’s the turn of Australian baritone Peter Coleman-Wright and the excellent Nexas saxophone quartet with Ballads of the Pleasant Life on ABC Classics. There’s a good smattering of Weill, including favourites September Song, Mack the Knife and the ballad that gives the album its title, but the real finds are the political and work songs of Eisler and Zemlinsky and, a little pearl,…

September 29, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Monteverdi: The Other Vespers (I Fagiolini/Hollingworth)

Robert Hollingworth has, with customary thought and flair, thrown his little beans (I Fagiolini) into an interesting musical salad to honour Monteverdi’s 450th birthday and his own group’s 30th. His starting point is the only contemporary account of Monteverdi conducting Vespers: a Dutch tourist espied the maestro working away from St Mark’s on June 24, 1620 (the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist). Drawing key elements from Monteverdi’s monumental 1641 collection of liturgical music, Selva Morale e Spirituale (The moral and spiritual wood) Hollingworth fashions a Vespers service for that feast, embellished with vocal and instrumental music of the period. There is much exuberant singing and playing to enjoy in this programme, which eschews the perhaps more famous 1610 collection of Vespers music. (Mind you, 1641 contains the ever-popular Beatus vir with its walking bass.) Hollingworth is happy to give his cornettists, Gawain Glenton and Andrea Inghisciano free rein in the realm of ornamentation. The results are brilliant and impart a splendid sense of occasion. Florid vocal passages are also handled with consummate ease and clarity (Dixit Dominus) while intimate devotional moments, like Donati’s Dulcis amor Iesu! are equally touching. Together with The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble and…

September 29, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: South of the Line (Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir/Paul Spicer)

South African-born English composer John Joubert turns 90 this year and SOMM Recordings are celebrating. In July, Clive Paget reviewed their recording of the opera Jane Eyre, remarking on Joubert’s stylistic resemblance to Britten. It’s very apparent in this choral music, written between 1952 and 2015. The polytonal harmonies, the word setting, and the choral voicings strongly recall the early Britten of A Boy Was Born and Cantata Academica, although Joubert’s settings are more robust. These traits appear clearly in Three Portraits, a setting of poems by Tudor poet John Skelton. The works are mostly unaccompanied, one exception the charming Autumn Rain (1985). The longest, most interesting work is South of the Line: an anti-war cantata, setting Hardy’s poems about the Boer War. The singers are accompanied by two pianos, percussion and timpani (very Noye’s Fludde), excitingly used. Two movements employ solo vocalists: soprano Chloe Salvidge is impressive in the demanding tessitura of A Wife in London. The Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir used boys in their 2014 Howells recording, but this time the sopranos and altos are female. In fortes (such as Chorus 1 of Incantation, or the Sonnet Op. 123) the women overpower the men, whose tone is fairly…

September 22, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter (Musica Secreta & Celestial Sirens)

According to 16th-century clerics, convent polyphony was dangerous, liable to lead nuns into vanity and other wickedness. Listening to the sensuous contrapuntal writhings and twinings, the ecstatic, rapturous beauty of these motets – possibly by Lucrezia Borgia’s daughter Leonora d’Este – you wonder if they didn’t have a point. The motets are from the Musica quinque vocum motteta maternal lingua vocata – the earliest published collection of polyphony composed for nuns. As piece after piece of graceful, equal-voice counterpoint unfolds, what’s striking is how progressive and sophisticated the style is for the 1540s, its smooth consonance spiced with occasional hits of chromaticism, its long lines embellished with little gilded flickers of ornamentation. With voice-parts confined to a two-octave range the risk is of a lack of scope. But thanks to careful deployment of solo and collective forces – the professional singers of Musica Secreta and excellent amateurs of Celestial Sirens – and judicious use of bass viol and organ, there’s enough delicate variation to keep things interesting. Haec dies is rejoicing, kept from all-out ebullience by its dark modality, while the filmy Hodie Simon Petrus, with its imitative upper voices and lace-like detailing, unfolds in rapt arcs. The longest work,…

September 22, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Dvořák: Stabat Mater (Czech Philharmonic/Bělohlávek)

Like encountering some extraordinary Pietà, listening to Dvořák’s grandiose evocation of Mary at the foot of the Cross leaves a lasting impression on the imagination. Written at a time when the composer was finally gaining recognition, it was to be the best and the worst of times. To have lost one child (as Dvořák did in 1875) was tragedy enough, but to lose his remaining two children the following year would have been more than most parents could bear. The surging opening of the Stabat Mater in particular witnesses to this deep grief. Bělohlávek and his forces harness all of this turbulent emotion, creating towering climaxes that immerse the listener in the crucifixion drama. Lasting nearly 20 minutes, the sonata-form first movement signals Dvořák’s intent to create a work in which his skills as symphonist, melodist, nationalist and believer are all given potent expression. To a large extent Dvořák succeeds in this artistic quest. The nine shorter, succeeding movements are creatively varied. After the Quis est homo in which we hear the well balanced solo quartet at close quarters, the pulsing, choral Eja Mater, fons amoris ushers one of the most striking movements of the work, Fac, ut ardeat. Here South Korean bass…

August 31, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Music for the 100 Years’ War (The Binchois Consort)

As with previous recordings by The Binchois Consort – such as Music for Henry V and the House of Lancaster – Music for the 100 Years’ War places a cappella sacred music in its historical context through a judicious mix of scholarship and speculation. The motivation in this case was to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415. But as the consort’s director Andrew Kirkman and Philip Weller write in their detailed booklet note, “In doing so [the programme] also casts its net wider, embracing other aspects and events” of the war of which Agincourt “formed but one part – albeit a heroic and iconic part.” Here, therefore, are carols, motets and sections of masses which might have been performed during Henry V’s campaign by members of “an enormous retinue”, which included a fully functioning liturgical and musical chapel. Such is the quality of the music and the performances that one can be left in no doubt that the creativity which grew out of the greater culture of the time and nourished it in turn can be equally inspiring today. This is music that sounds as fresh as though it were written just yesterday…

August 4, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Schumann: Einsamkeit Lieder (Matthias Goerne, Markus Hinterhauser)

The German bass baritone Matthias Goerne must spend most of his professional life in recording studios at the moment. Over the past two years, around a dozen of his albums have been released or reissued, including plenty of Schubert and Brahms, as well as music by Berio, a complete Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and his ongoing Ring project with Jaap van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He has also returned to the songs of Schumann with this excellent Harmonia Mundi album Einsamkeit, which covers some of the same ground as his 2004 Decca release with pianist Erich Schneider. Goerne has matured into one of the most in-demand and compelling singers amongst an impressive field of bass and baritone Lieder specialists, his warm, full and dark timbre ideal for this thoughtful collection covering the full span of Schumann’s output, from Myrthen – his 1840 wedding gift to Clara – to Abenlied, written some 12 years later. Goerne is also making his recording debut with Italian-born Austrian pianist Markus Hinterhauser and their musical chemistry is immediately apparent from the seductive opening track Meine Rose. The duo made a huge impression when they performed Schubert’s Winterreise in last year’s Sydney Festival. Their partnership…

August 4, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: MacMillan: Stabat Mater (The Sixteen, Britten Sinfonia/Harry Christophers)

The Stabat Mater Dolorosa first appeared in the second half of the 13th century as a lengthy poem set to music, generally attributed to Jacopone da Todi (d. 1306), an Umbrian Franciscan friar. It is one of the countless expressions of the affective piety that characterised Western late-medieval Christianity, encouraging intense and emotional identification (as fellow suffers) with Christ, his mother and other characters in the Christian story, often in minute detail. The Stabat Mater focuses closely on Mary’s abject sorrow as she stands at the foot of the cross, on which hangs the crucified body of her son. It has received many musical re-settings over the centuries, most famously by Palestrina in around 1590, and Pergolesi (1736), but also by Dvorˇák and Rossini, and in the 20th century, by Szymanowski (1926), Poulenc (1950) and Pärt (1985). James MacMillan (b. 1959) has a long history of writing in religious musical forms, and his 21st-century Stabat Mater is scored for choir and string orchestra. It was written with the particular strengths of Harry Christopher and The Sixteen in mind. It’s an intense, personal and captivating work, beautifully recorded in the Church of St Augustine’s in Kilburn, London. The interplay between voice…

August 4, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: St John Passion (Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski)

Great respect has characterised Marc Minkowski’s decision to allow some 30 years of his career to pass before recording the St John. In choosing to use only eight singers he is at pains to create an intimate but intense reading of this most powerful work. This performance is based on the original 1724 version, but appends two arias from the revisions Bach made a year later, as well as employing later additions to the original orchestration (contrabassoon and theorbo) and a harpsichord in the continuo. Minkowski is intent on bringing out the radical musical drama that must have shocked, or at least perplexed, the good burghers of Leipzig that Good Friday afternoon in 1724. Eschewing the textural contrast between soloists and chorus, Minkowski differentiates between the various musical elements by adopting brisk tempos for choruses and deftly connecting them to recitatives, creating an almost frenetic telling of the story, in which Evangelist Lothar  Odinius plays an impressive role. The arias offer varied meditations on the action. Australian countertenor David Hansen delivers an impassioned account of the aria Von der Stricken. Fellow alto, Delphine Galou, sings the more famous Es ist vollbracht with great empathy. No one performance will ever have…

August 4, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Josquin: Missi Di Dadi, Missa Une Mousse de Biscaye (The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips)

Move over John Cage and Henry Cowell. Chance music, it seems, existed long before last century. How surprising and intriguing to discover that the roll of the dice may well have determined the compositional method of a Mass that could have been written by the great polyphonist, Josquin des Prés. (Josquin was employed by the Sforza family, some of the biggest gamblers in 15th-century Milan.) Movements of the Missa Di Dadi (Dice Mass) are preceded by images of dice showing different numbers. These indicated to the tenors the proportional length of the base melody (a chanson by Robert Morton) to the other parts. As Peter Phillips points out in his engaging notes, these indications are a bit haphazard and fortunately the publisher (presumably not a gambler) wrote out the actual tenor part to avoid confusion. While all of this is quite amusing – and despite not knowing for certain the Mass is by Josquin – the music is certainly worthy of attention. The customary precision and blend of The Tallis Scholars is in evidence throughout, but the final Agnus Dei is particularly moving. Missa Une mousse de Biscaye also lacks firm evidence of authorship by Josquin. Based on a secular…

August 4, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Giaches de Wert: Sacred Motets (Stile Antico)

In his day, Giaches de Wert (1535-96) was the foremost composer of madrigals, most notably serving in the musically progressive Gonzaga court at Mantua and influencing the young Monteverdi. He had a considerable 12 books of madrigals to his name. What is less well known is that he also produced three books of motets which also display his madrigalian prowess. Many of the texts he set were not standard liturgical texts, but rather biblical stories that lent themselves to more programmatic treatment. Wert’s music was not the only colourful aspect of his life. Early on he married Lucrezia Gonzaga and produced at least six children. His appointment to Mantua was full of intrigue: several moves were made to discredit him, but he stuck to his work, despite being labelled a cuckold. (His wife had been having an affair with the composer who was passed over for Wert’s job.) Lucrezia came to a sticky end some years later when she was involved in a murderous plot to seize a noble title. Wert eventually had an affair of his own, with the widowed noblewoman and poet, Tarquinia Molza. Such was Wert’s musical worth that when this scandal was discovered, Tarquinia was banished…

August 2, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Meyerbeer: Grand Opera (Diana Damrau)

If the musical night sky could be said to be littered with the glittering trails of falling stars, perhaps no single composer has fallen quite so far and so fast as Jacob Liebmann Beer (1791-1864), or Giacomo Meyerbeer as he came to be known. The darling of the Paris Opéra for 25 years as a result of the enduring success of Robert le Diable with its infamous ballet in which a graveyard full of deceased nuns rise up to cavort in the moonlight, the German-born Meyerbeer went on to dominate the French opera scene with a string of romantic and historical blockbusters such as L’Africaine (where the heroine expires from the scent of a deadly tropical tree), Les Huguenots (in which the three principals are simultaneously shot by a chorus of murderers), and Le Prophète (where the final scene calls for the entire cast to be blown up with gunpowder!). Within a decade of his demise, however, Meyerbeer began to suffer an almost total eclipse, a victim of his over-the-top plots, the new music of Wagner and his followers, and, some would suggest, prey to the nasty brand of anti-Semitism that came to a head in the dying days of…

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