June 30, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Heimat (Benjamin Appl, James Baillieu)

Benjamin Appl was Gramophone Young Artist of the Year 2016, suggesting a 20-something budding talent. It was a surprise then to discover he was born in 1982 and, as evident from this recital, is a fully mature artist. Lieder-philes would have been alerted by his Wigmore Hall Schubert recital with the venerable Graham Johnson, which I will eagerly now hunt out. This release signals a serious intent – a Konzept Liederabend if you will – its title one of those succinct words that defy direct translation; a sense of national affinity for one’s homeland. Appl has contrived his tribute to two homelands; having grown up near Regensburg, Schubert and Brahms figure heavily with some Wolf, Strauss, Reger and Schreker thrown in for good measure, while some British songs and Poulenc’s Hyde Park represent his residency in London since 2010. Most moving is Adolf Strauss’ Ich weiß bestimmt, ich werd’ dich wiedersehen (I know I shall see you again) written in Terezin before the composer was murdered at Auschwitz. The recital concludes with two songs in german by Grieg. Appl has a lovely voice with a degree of grain to add gravitas – he sings “on the words” but not so…

June 30, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: Cantatas 170, 54 & 82 (Iestyn Davies, Arcengelo/Johnathan Cohen)

There seems to be no end to the talents of Iestyn Davies. A thoroughly modern countertenor, Davies is at home in all sorts of venues, whether they be churches, concert halls, opera houses, recording studios or theatres, and wherever he goes he impresses audiences with both the breadth and the quality of his performances. So it is only natural that such a talented performer should want to turn his hand to that greatest of composers, JS Bach. The only problem is, as Richard Wigmore points out in his illuminating notes, “with countertenors confined to English cathedral choirs and castrati to the opera house, ‘alto’ for Bach meant a teenaged boy on the cusp of adolescence.” While from the dual standpoints of vocal technique and timbre, this prospect might have dampened the composer’s enthusiasm for alto solos, particularly in the cantatas, we are fortunate to have Cantata 54 from the Weimar period, Widerstehe doch der Sünde, which Wigmore believes would have been written for a particularly gifted boy alto. Cast in three movements, this musical admonition against sin and Satan is a colourful and expressive work, but Davies and Arcangelo take an intimate and controlled approach, despite all the talk of…

June 26, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Dahlesque (Elise McCann)

Elise McCann’s album Dahlesque, released by ABC Music, features the songs from her new cabaret show of the same name, which premiered to rave reviews at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Dahlesque comprises a selection of music inspired by the gloriously irreverent, darkly funny stories of children’s author Roald Dahl including numbers from the film Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and the musicals Matilda The Musical, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and James and the Giant Peach. It’s a clever idea, and spins off the fact that McCann recently played Miss Honey in the Australian production of Matilda The Musical, winning both a Sydney Theatre Award and a Helpmann Award for her touching portrayal. The warmth and glow that McCann has as a stage performer shines through on the album. She has a lovely pure, true voice with a honeyed tone in her middle register, an effortless belt, and top notes that send ripples down the spine. It’s also a voice with real character. Her diction is impeccable and she connects with the lyric, which makes her a great storyteller in song – altogether a consummate musical theatre voice. Accompanied here by a nine-piece band under the musical direction of…

June 2, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Sullivan: Songs (Mary Bevan, Ben Johnson, Ashley Riches, David Owen Norris)

We know Sullivan primarily for the brilliant music he wrote for the equally brilliant comic plays of WS Gilbert. Many will also know some of his excellent concert music. The songs are a different matter, although many are attractive and well written,  they fall outside the popular Lieder repertoire inhabited by Schubert and his lot, not always reaching the heights attained by those German composers with which they have a cultural affinity. Nonetheless they are certainly worthy of our attention and so Chandos has come to the rescue with 46 of them. For his texts Sullivan drew widely. He drew from Shakespeare, O Mistress Mine and The Willow Song. The song cycle The Window by Tennyson and from Robert Burns the delicately felt Mary Morrison. In the main the music is often what you would expect, lightly inspired Victoriana. For example, the Arabian Love Song, with its mysterious piano ripples between verses is intriguing and the ballad Once Again undoubtedly had female hearts fluttering in many a drawing room. Sweethearts is a melodramatic duet from the composer’s old collaborator, Gilbert. It is set as a waltz and goes with an engaging swing. Familiar to Savoyards will be the reworking of…

June 2, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Finzi & Bax & Ireland: Choral music (The Choir of Westminster Abbey/James O’Donnell)

Way back last century (in 1986 to be precise) the choir of King’s College, Cambridge under Stephen Cleobury produced a recording of choral pieces by Bax and Finzi. At a time when fascination with ‘early music’ was at its height, this rather unfashionable choice of repertory was a revelation; its expansive text-setting and lush harmonies were a reminder of a then rather neglected corner of choral music, full of guilty but well-wrought pleasures. Some 30 years on, choirs are thankfully less narrow in their choices. James O’Donnell and his Westminster Abbey forces have delivered a more than worthy successor to that disc. O’Donnell lavishes much care on Finzi’s masterly anthem, Lo the Full, Final Sacrifice; its long, contrasting paragraphs full of beautiful singing, whether the exultant “Lo, the bread of life” or the meditative “soft, self-wounding Pelican” or the beguiling Amen. Careful attention to text mirrors Finzi’s own care in this regard. God is Gone Up is dispatched with appropriate élan and the Magnificat radiates unalloyed joy. Three smaller Finzi anthems confirm his appeal. Bax is represented by contrasting carols, I Sing of a Maiden and This Worldes Joie – the first carefree and the second careworn. Given the considerable…

June 2, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Liszt: Lieder (Timothy Fallon, Ammiel Bushakevitz)

The US tenor Timothy Fallon seems poised on the cusp of fame, judging from the debut release with his regular recital partner the Israeli-South African pianist Ammiel Bushakevitz. The duo appear regularly at London’s Wigmore Hall, winning the 2013 Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition. Fallon is also making a name in Europe where he appears regularly with Oper Leipzig and he is heard on a couple of Pentatone’s Wagner series under Marek Janowski. Fine diction and a lovely clear higher register even across all the dynamics, from a lovely sotto voce to full-blooded fortissimos, are qualities he brings to this BIS recording of 15 songs by Franz Liszt. His expressive voice is nimble and nuanced and he pays great attention to the text, teasing out the subtle colours and shades while Bushakevitz’s sensitive piano keeps momentum going. They work seamlessly together and there is plenty of scope for dramatic stretch, with the standout Drei Lieder aus Schillers Wilhelm Tell and the three Petrarch sonnet settings both offering plenty of emotional shifts and experimental harmonies. The disc covers 40 years of Liszt’s output and takes in four languages, with settings of Victor Hugo and Tennyson also on the programme. This…

May 31, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Ravel: Daphnis and Chloé (Les Siècles, Ensemble Aedes/Roth)

Ravel called his glittering score to Daphnis et Chloé a ‘Symphonie choreographique’: essentially a ‘symphony with dance’, the perfect description for a work of such majesty, where the music really is centre-stage. The score is usually segmented into three suites for concert performance, making a hearing of the full version all too rare a treat. Thankfully François-Xavier Roth with period instrument orchestra Les Siècles and Ensemble Aedes deliver the full ballet on this recent release with Harmonia Mundi, with the most stunning results. The exact date of inception of Daphnis et Chloé is somewhat disputed, but the original commission came from Diaghilev, for the prestigious Ballets Russes. The composition was fraught with challenges, mainly due to creative differences between Ravel and the choreographer, Michel Fokine. After numerous revisions and a delayed premiere, the ballet finally opened in June 1912, almost a year before Parisian audiences would be scandalised by the riot over Stravinsky’s vicious Rite. Underscoring the ancient Greek tale of a pastoral romance between a shepherd and shepherdess, Ravel’s music is languorous and enchanting, shimmering with lush orchestral colour, and worlds away from Stravinsky’s pulsating nightmare. The beginning and third part are mostly relaxed, dreamy episodes, framing the dramatic…

May 12, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Poulenc: Sacred choral works (The Sixteen/Harry Christophers)

How do you take your Poulenc? I only ask because, conveniently, The Sixteen have recorded a lot of the repertoire on their latest disc before, and their thinking has changed dramatically in the 30-year gap. The contrast between the 1990 Figure Humaine (Virgin Classics, now Erato 5624312) and the newly released Francis Poulenc: Choral Music (CORO) is striking – neither an improvement nor the reverse, simply two very different approaches to the composer’s sacred music. Poulenc’s journey to faith was a swift and dramatic one. The turning point is usually placed in 1936, when two separate events together propelled the composer into a new state of mind. The sudden and violent death of his friend, composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in a car accident prompted a visit to the small chapel at Rocamadour, where a mystical experience restored the Catholicism of his childhood. He immediately began work on a sacred piece – the Litanies à la Vierge Noir – taking his first steps in a genre that would become a constant throughout his life. The sound-world of Figure Humaine is one of gauzy, glossy beauty – a Mannerist vision of a heaven that’s all soft-focus loveliness and elegance. These are performances that…

May 5, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: A Voice From Heaven (Choir of The King’s Consort/Robert King)

Here is a disc with the air of luxury about it. To start, what a luxury to hear the voices of Robert King’s Consort by themselves. As part of a vocal and instrumental mix, they are never less than alluring, but there is something particularly luxurious about hearing them a cappella for an entire disc. The choice of programme is also generous and first-rate: we are presented with British works from this century and last, chosen around a broad theme of remembrance, and for the most part in pairs, sharing the same or similar texts. This allows listeners to enjoy familiar favourites as well as ‘classics in waiting’. Amongst the well-known are William Harris’s setting of Bring us, O Lord God and Herbert Howells’ Take Him, Earth for Cherishing. Apart from their crystalline clarity and their impeccable ensemble, the singers deliver superbly expressive singing that takes these already famous pieces to a new level. The same artistry is also at the service of accomplished, more recent settings of these same texts. James MacMillan’s Bring Us, O Lord God brings an edgier but no less ecstatic feel to the text, while John Tavener’s Take Him, Earth for Cherishing uses only the…

May 5, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Mass in C Minor, K427 (Bach Collegium Japan/Suzuki)

Masaaki Suzuki has done a great deal for the cause of Bach over many years, but his way with Mozart is no less persuasive. Not only does he imbue the “great” but unfinished C Minor Mass with equal measures of grandeur, exuberance and other-worldliness, but he is one of those rare conductors (Boulez was another) who can impart to the listener great textural clarity plus an unclouded sense of the musical architecture. From the opening, rather old-fashioned Kyrie, Suzuki carefully paces the unfolding drama, allowing each part to play its role. The opening chorus of the Gloria (with its none-too-subtle references to Handel’s greatest hit) is joyfully dispatched, as are the succeeding solo opportunities. Sopranos Carolyn Sampson and Olivia Vermuelen are well matched in the Domine Deus; both having an excellent sense of phrasing. Sampson negotiates the justly famous Et Incarantus Est of the Credo with grace and ease. Suzuki’s careful attention to detail ensures beautifully shaped singing and playing throughout and a clear sense of how each part contributes to the whole. This is particularly true of the majestic brass in the Sanctus and the vocal intricacies at the end of the Gloria. To finish on a lighter note,…

April 26, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Distant Light (Renée Fleming, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic/Oramo)

Renée Fleming is no stranger to crossover. America’s favourite soprano has dabbled in rock music (2010’s Dark Hope), jazz (2005’s Haunted Heart), even duetted with Michael Bolton. But, until now, these have remained off-duty projects, separate from her official operatic identity. But in Distant Light she brings two worlds together, combining covers of Björk songs with music by Barber and Anders Hillborg in a recording that might just offer a vision of things to come in the classical music business. This feels like a coherent and convincing recital programme, tipping naturally from Barber’s hazy vision of pre-lapsarian America into Hillborg’s luminous sonic landscapes before casting off the classical anchor and drifting out into Björk’s broad lakes of sound and texture, beautifully reimagined in Hans Ek’s arrangements. Fleming still has one of the loveliest voices in the business, and that blooming tone is celebrated not only in the Barber but in Hillborg’s settings of poems by Mark Strand, former US Poet Laureate, which eschew the composer’s signature massive soundscapes for gentler, more intricate textures (lovingly performed here by Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic). If the tone feels more manufactured in the three Björk tracks, it’s not unpleasantly so. Together they…

April 26, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Mendelssohn: Elias (Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble/Hengelbrock)

The Old Testament’s “ripping yarn” about the prophet, Elijah was perfectly suited to the oratorio form in more ways than one. Apart from teeming with dramatic situations that begged for large and colourful musical treatment, the prophet’s vanquishing of the forces of evil and his subsequent glorification (being taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, no less) were perfectly attuned to prevailing Protestant sensibilities of the Victorian middle classes who enthusiastically hailed Mendelssohn’s work a masterpiece. While Thomas Hengelbrock’s version is not on the same scale as Paul McCreesh’s monumental 2012 account, it does benefit from the excellent singing and playing of the Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble. In particular, the choir sings with unfailingly incisive rhythm and excellent German diction. Amongst the soloists the undoubted star is the young Hungarian bass, Michael Nagy, whose accomplished portrayal of Elijah balances the requisite qualities of patriarchal strength and human vulnerability. Some may find Hengelbrock’s tempos a touch fast and a little unyielding at cadences and other points of harmonic interest. Both the heroic story and its musical realisation suggest the need for some flexibility. There is a sense that this version has sacrificed a little of the work’s grandeur and pathos on the altar…

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