January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Violin Sonatas Vol. 1 (Alina Ibragimova [v], Cédric Tiberghien [p])

Volume 1 is a complete cycle of the Beethoven sonatas, which do not traverse the same range of styles or psychological landscapes as the piano sonatas, string quartets, or symphonies. Still, Ibragimova and Tiberghien create their own universe here, such is their joint command of technique, insight and the sheer stylish charm of their playing. They deliver so many felicitous moments it’s hard to know where to start. I could begin with the wonderful way they capture the contrast in the third variation of the central movement of the Op 12. The first two variations are very much in Mozartian vein but suddenly, there is an abrupt, minor key departure, foreshadowing, even at the outset of his career, Beethoven’s capacity to shock. Similarly, in the adagio of the Op 30, No 2, Tiberghien interrupts the ecstatic musing with sudden, vehement flourishes and does it to perfection. I love the entire ambience of the Op 30, No 3, arguably the most captivating of the lot and its rag-tag allegro vivace finale (which, for unaccountable reasons always reminds me of Aaron Copland’s Hoe down). I’ll be surprised if I’m as taken with any other performances for a long time.

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Deutsche Barocklieder (Andreas Scholl, Markus Märkel)

But its influences are wider than that, often bridging the areas between folk song and the more classical and romantic lied with which most are us are familiar. The composers on this recording are unlikely to be known to many music lovers. The earliest songs are by Johann Nauwach (1595-1630) and Heinrich Albert (1604-1651). Adam Krieger (1634-1666) is represented by four songs, one of which is Der Rheinsche Wein. It is a jolly affair, complete with chorus and very like a tavern song of the period. In contrast, De Liebe Macht herrscht Tag und Nacht (Love’s Might Reigns Day and Night) is sweetly sad. Another significant contributor to this selection is Johann Philipp Krieger. He was an opera composer, and arias from three of his operas are here. From the elegantly lovely An die Einsamkeit, (Procris) to the pleading Schmilz, hartes Herz (Melt, You Stony, Hard Heart) from Cecrops. Harpsichordist, Markus Märkel, makes a significant contribution and the instrumental accompaniment is as impeccable as Scholl’s elegant singing. A superb CD of delightful music that is refreshing to the ear.

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MAHLER Symphony No 8 (Sydney Symphony / Ashkenazy)

The opening movement is an assault on the senses, especially at its climax, and makes me wonder whether it’s almost impossible to “interpret” it in the normal sense of the word. That said, Ashkenazy and his forces handle the climaxes and double fugue of the first section with a judicious blend of heaven storming, rhetorical grandeur and clarity of orchestral and choral textures (no mean feat!). Music of this heft really needs majestic phrasing and it certainly receives it here. The quiet, almost sinister, opening to the second part (Mahler’s rather, for once, understated depiction of Hell) is well paced and phrased, and the music achieves a transcendental ecstatic quality, reminiscent of the incandescence of the final act of Wagner’s Parsifal; it’s also beautifully played, as is the entire work, by the Sydney forces. The massed choirs and soloists are all fine, especially Marina Shaguch in her stratospheric tessitura as Gretchen the Penitent at the end. My favourite readings of the Eighth are by the late and genuinely lamented Klaus Tennstedt (EMI) and the equally lamented Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG), but this is a fine effort.

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL Concerti Grossi (The Avison Ensemble / Pavlo Beznosiuk)

They continue to make excellent audio equipment, but for many years they have also made outstanding classical CDs. This release is another, and what a beauty! Handel’s Opus 6 set of concerti grossi is a textbook of string writing, which students have been studying for centuries. They also contain some of Handel’s most engaging music in the genre: elegant, witty, ever-so-stylish exercises for a small string ensemble. We must remember that at the beginning of the 18th century, London was bursting with musical enterprise, and Handel was very much at the centre of it. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to think of Handel as the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day. His genius was almost as evident in promotion and what we would now call marketing as it was in his music itself. The great Italian Corelli was well known in cosmopolitan London, and Handel may well have modeled his Opus 6 set of concertos on his work. Handel also composed them in a feverish burst of creativity (in two months of 1739), much as he did with Messiah. This recording by the Avison Ensemble is very sympathetic, with gorgeous sound and very stylish playing. Highly recommended.

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Die Zauberflöte (Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin / Jacobs)

Jacobs goes to town in this new Die Zauberflöte, with sprightly tempi, unconventional vocal and instrumental flourishes and sound effects aplenty – all of it backed up at length in the lavish booklet. The singing is excellent: Daniel Behle (Tamino) and Marlis Petersen (Pamina) are an ardent, lyrical pair, Daniel Schmutzhard a witty Papageno, and Anna-Kristiina Kaappola an edgily effective if slightly unruly Königin. It’s very much an ensemble piece, however, with no single, dazzling standout; if this recording has a star, it is Jacobs himself. In his inimitable hands, this is Zauberflöte as you’ve never heard it before, and in all honesty, may never hear it again – a curiosity, but realised with a talent and conviction that are hard to resist. Only one major caveat remains: Jacobs has, true to form, retained what seems to be every last speck of dialogue, and while it’s handled with as much imagination as the singing, its interference may be a dealbreaker for some.

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BARTÓK Piano Concertos 1 – 3 (Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, BBC Phil Orch / Noseda)

On top of that, he was an exceptional pianist. Otto Klemperer wrote of Bartók’s tone that it was “almost painfully beautiful”, often forgotten when pianists launch into Bartók’s triple fortes with a sledge- hammer. The first two concertos seem to invite a harsh response from performers. No 1 (1926) is full of sharp edges. The Second, from 1930, is equally vivid and exciting, making greater use of folk music in its rhythmic and thematic turns of phrase. The Third (1945) is quite another creature: written for the composer’s wife to play when he was ailing (in fact, he did not live to complete the orchestration of the final movement) – it is comparatively mellow and lyrical. The tender chorale of the slow movement is one of Bartók’s most intimate and personal statements. Any recording that fails to stress the contrasts between these pieces is missing something. I’m afraid that is the case here, even though Bavouzet’s playing is powerful and expressive; he can certainly take every technical challenge in his stride. Revered as a Debussy pianist, it may be that he is overcompensating in this starker repertoire. The recording is to blame too: piano and orchestra are closely miked within…

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: KORNGOLD The String Quartets (Doric String Quartet)

If ever you needed a musical snapshot of Vienna between the wars, this is it. (Even though the Third Quartet was composed after WWII). The benign shadow of the elderly Brahms occasionally hovers; likewise, the less benign shade of Schoenberg ­ but – don’t worry, the music occasionally strains at tonality but never becomes atonal; and, most of all, there’s the hallmark warm, luscious, late Romantic lyricism of Korngold, Mahler’s true heir. The way he creates a sudden dissonance, a chromatic shadow and ensuing chill is very Viennese, as if reminding us not to just admire the flowers but to remember the dark sinister roots beneath. It’s the equivalent of the moment in Korngold’s film scores when Bette Davis accidentally discovers the love letters in a secret drawer – a sort of musical Freudian slip. The First Quartet is the most complex, yet beguiling, and the lyrical second subjects and main ideas radiate an almost operatic sensuality and at other times a hymn-like beauty. The Doric Quartet dispatch with insouciance what must be nightmarishly difficult filigree work in the perky intermezzo, while the finale uses Korngold’s musical motto Motiv des fröhlichen Herzens (Motif of the cheerful heart) which he liked…

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Sonatas for Piano & Violin (Mitsuko Uchida, Mark Steinberg)

Pianist Mitsuko Uchida and violinist Mark Steinberg have been playing these sonatas together for 12 years now. Their playing is as natural as breathing. Choosing just four must have been a difficult task. The result is remarkable, giving us a sweeping portrayal of the depths Mozart was able to find within this most honed-back of all chamber ensembles. The first two (K377 and K303) are relatively optimistic and playful pieces, although even these give glimpses of the depths Beethoven would later plumb in this genre. But Mozart finds his own emotional depths in the work in E Minor, K304, written just after his mother died. This is a surprisingly bleak and sorrowful composition, devoid of the sunlight which flows abundantly from most of his work. The final quartet, in A major K526, was written much later and is a far more complex work showing the composer’s full artistic maturity. It is as important a work as anything he composed, intense and dramatic, though with abundant joy and light. Our two performers grace these compositions with lucid, intelligent playing; and the warm, intimate recording serves them with distinction.

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Sibelius: Symphonies (New Zealand SO/Inkinen)

I was amazed to read one review of this performance of Sibelius’s First Symphony which confidently asserted that Pietari Inkinen was to be congratulated on his achievement in effacing virtually all traces of Tchaikovsky from the music, as if that were a major criterion in assessing it! Inkinen is no young man in a hurry in Sibelius: his account of the First Symphony, at 40 mins, is one of the longest in the catalogue. His certainly doesn’t stint on the Romantic rhetoric either, pace my fellow reviewer. His reading is leisurely and well upholstered – poles apart from, say, Osmo Vänska’s trim, taut and terrific approach. These recordings are quite closely miked, meaning, inter alia, we hear plenty of harp throughout, especially in my favourite passage, the delicate section of the slow movement where sonic magic is made by the harp, woodwinds and triangle. Alas, the string sound is occasionally thin but, in general, the playing is distinguished and the timpani is well captured in the scherzo. In the unjustly neglected Third – just as elusive in its own way as the Sixth – Inkinen inclines toward steady tempos and I particularly like the way he manages the often awkward…

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Bassoon Concertos (Karen Geoghegan, BBC Philharmonic/Noseda)

It is a sweet-sounding instrument, quite emotional and even, in her hands, elegant, but always within a relatively narrow band of expression when compared to the more virtuosic concerto partners, the piano, violin or the unabashed French horn. Mozart’s only surviving concerto for bassoon (he wrote three others, all lost) is a charming work, written when the composer was only 18 years old. It features a particularly beautiful andante, which has a delicious theme anticipating his famous aria Porgi amor from The Marriage of Figaro. The main item on the disc is a recently-discovered concerto by Gioachino Rossini, or at least attributed to him by some scholars. If they are correct, this would be the last piece he wrote for orchestra, before he left Bologna to live the high life in Paris. Sadly, it is a rather perfunctory piece with some pleasing moments but concluding with a rondo in which all high spirits seem assumed. It suggests, more than anything else, that the now-retired Rossini had said all he wanted to say in music. More interest is found in two 19th-century concertos by Conradin Kreutzer and Bernhard Crusell, who ride above the limitations of the solo instrument to provide some…

January 2, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: From Shadows (Adam Herd)

Adam Herd is a young prize-winning pianist from Coffs Harbour. Don’t be misled by the “country-and-western” cover shot, or the bio that stresses his interest in sport and surfing: Herd may be a regular guy but he is also a sensitive and accomplished musician. His program is well chosen. Anatoly Liadov was a late 19th-century Russian composer, essentially a miniaturist. His three short pieces (Prelude Op 11, No 1, Barcarolle Op 44, and Novelette Op 20) are pretty but insubstantial; the orchestra was Liadov’s domain. Nonetheless, he was a precursor to Rachmaninov, whose rarely played Variations on a Theme of Chopin follow. The variations are on Chopin’s Prelude Op 28, No 20, a solemn chorale. Solemnity permeates the first ten minutes of this long work, poorly received at its premiere. The composer subsequently cut the 10th and 12th variations and the coda, and Herd plays the shorter version. Although the piece takes a while to get started, it eventually offers the performer opportunities to be fleet, tender, and vigorous. Herd meets these challenges with style and an innate feeling for rubato. Australian composer Carl Vine’s Third Piano Sonata was composed in 2007. In four linked movements, it progresses from a…

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