January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: WHITACRE Choral Music (Elora Festival Singers/Edison)

If the message embedded in a poem is its key reason for existing, then this becomes complicated when we are presented with music ­– even settings of those very words – instead of the print on the page. Here, therefore, is a CD that sounds simply magnificent, yet is devoid of meaning in the bookish sense that Whitacre’s commitment implies. But what a wonderful mixture he provides to make the point! Eleven varied texts are selected from sources as ancient as biblical writings, up through the 13th century to e.e. cummings and contemporary writer Charles Silvestri. The music of Whitacre, who has become, at the age of 39, one of the most performed composers of his generation, brings new drama to these texts, holding them in real dramatic tension. You can really feel the power the composer evokes in manipulating high and low, strong and light, one against the other, back to back. Disparate they may be, but these pieces effectively merge into one long celebration of the quality of the collective voice, beautiful enough to give the spine a tingle, and an object lesson in how stirring and moving the human voice can be. What Whitacre has done with…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ALBINONI Homage to a Spanish Grandee: Concertos from op 10 (violin: Simon Standage)

If your mind wanders from this performance, no blame should attach to Standage and his ensemble, whose treatment does full justice to music that was brand new more than three hundred years ago. The Marquis would have had reason to feel his money well spent in giving Albinoni the means to be heard so far in the future. Disappointed, perhaps, had he known that the Opus 10 he was paying for would remain effectively undiscovered for most of that time, but finding it intact means we can hear the real Albinoni, rather than the reconstruction from fragments that he has occasionally had to put up with in the past. Very agreeable his music sounds, too, though with so much already available from the period, it claims its place as a welcome addition, rather than giving us a reason to change anything we already know about this particular artform. On a minor note, praise is due to Chandos for their creative artwork on the cover, based on an 18th-century painting of King Charles III. Most attractive, and the booklet notes are both learned and informative.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Berenice; Regina d’Egitto (singers: Ek, Bohlin, Fagioli, Basso; Il Complesso Barocco/Curtis)

 It is one of the great man’s earlier works, but had to wait 18 years for a performance. Written in 1709 but not staged until 1737, it failed at its premiere in Covent Garden and was largely ignored afterwards. It is not difficult to see why, despite many arias of charm and style that Handelians have come to respect and love. It contains only one chorus (the finale) and three duets. Having not seen the work staged, I have to assume that this does not make for an engrossing evening in the theatre. On disc, of course, this is less important. However, the variety of music and ensembles that we have come to expect from his masterpieces (such as Acis and Galatea, Julius Caesar and Alcina), is not evidenced here. Even as a concert it would be a stretch: 2 hours 45 minutes is a long time for an audience to cope with a seemingly endless stream of similar arias, no matter how brilliant. This performance is up to the standard that we now expect in this field. The reduced orchestra of Il Complesso Barocco (no flutes, trumpets or horns) plays well and the soloists are excellent. Special mention must…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BOWEN Piano Sonatas Nos 1-3, 5, 6; Short Sonata in C sharp minor (piano: Danny Driver)

Indeed, this is all you need to know to get a handle on this composer without actually having to listen to anything, and was perhaps written in the liner notes by someone who had heard it all before and thought they might save other people a bit of  time. Once you have heard it all yourself, you might think they have a point, but Hyperion has acted in the spirit of artistic appreciation by offering all of Bowen’s sonatas on the one double CD. Time-wise, these works spread across half a century of history when the world changed at least three times and Bowen’s music hardly did at all. Born in 1884 in London, he was a romantic right from the start, preferring minor keys and bluesy inflections without giving any clues about what else may have been happening in the history of Western harmony. If you fix on the sound of one sonata, you have fixed on them all. The nearest Bowen got to surprising anyone in his career as a composer was coming out with a Short Sonata, when fans might have expected something called Piano Sonata No 4 (which he wrote, but nobody seems to know where…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PAGANINI 24 Caprices (violin: Julia Fischer)

  This may be the closest thing to a live performance I have ever heard on a studio recording. The sound on my studio monitor-style speakers is uncannily like having Julia Fischer play her violin just three or four feet away from you. It’s not so much that her instrument has been miked very closely – more, the illusion is total that she is there, standing close and playing her instrument at her so-intimate audience. The Paganini Caprices are amongst the most famous of the solo violin repertoire, and many of the items are a recitalist’s dream for an audience-shattering finale. Most famous of course is the final Caprice, which is the wellspring for innumerable themes and variations, including the Brahms piano variations and, my own favourite, Rachmaninov’s sublime Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Fischer wants us to consider these Caprices as more than standout individual bravura pieces. She wants us to listen to them as a unified whole. I’m sure Paganini relished the flamboyant aspect of these works, but Julia’s performance is not only technically accomplished, it is artistically persuasive as well. The bravura is still there, but she does draw out intrinsic beauty, and thoughtfulness as well….

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One (piano: Zhu Xiao-Mei)

Two years ago Zhu Xiao-Mei recorded Book Two of The Well-Tempered Clavier (or, as this French disc dubs it, Le Clavier Bien Tempéré), and now gives us this two-disc set of Book One. The reason for this odd order, she says, is simply that she believes Book Two has languished besides the popularity of Book One. This ordering helps redress that balance. Mei, now living in Paris, has a special affinity with Bach. Not long after starting her piano studies, she was caught up in China’s Cultural Revolution and found herself working in a labour camp. Music was forbidden, but she had smuggled in a copy of the WTC, and spent day after day copying it to share with her companions. This gave her an especially deep acquaintanceship with the work, which shows clearly in this recording. It is instantly a classic account, which I’ll keep alongside my András Schiff and Sviatoslav Richter. Though those have great strengths, this account is somehow more touching, as if she is able to pierce through to the essential simplicity which lies within this great work. The recording too is flawless. Her piano is a Steinway, which allows more interpretative freedom than a period-instrument,…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHARPENTIER David and Jonathan (Soloists and Chorus of Pinchgut Orchestra, Cantillation, Orch of the Antipodes/Walker)

 This recording was made over four performances by Pinchgut Opera at Sydney’s City Recital Hall in 2008. It shows clearly the advantages – and limitations – of live performance recordings. The advantages are the feeling of immediacy, of being caught up in the excitement and danger of live performance. If one performer falters, the whole ensemble can fall. On audio, however, live performance can be distracting. Footsteps, movement of scenery, and of course audience noise, can take the edge from an otherwise immaculate performance. That does happen here intermittently. But only intermittently. In essence, this is another splendid outing from Pinchgut, which continues to offer esoteric operas our national company could not economically stage in the major Sydney and Melbourne theatres. This opera from 1688 features some of Charpentier’s most unshackled writing, free from earlier performance conventions. It’s performed here on Baroque instruments while the supple voices of the principals – especially the outstanding Baroque tenor Anders J Dahlin as David, Sara MacIiver as his beloved Jonathan and baritone Dean Robinson as Jonathan’s father Saul – tackle the special demands of this period’s music with relish. Some studio recordings have finer polish than this, but few match its impetuous drama.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MARCO DALL’AQUILA Pieces for Lute (lute: Paul O’Dette)

This is compensated for by having just the one performer, whose special project this is. Some tracks run for less than a minute, so you have to be quick to register whether you have just rushed through an adaptation of something by, say, Clément Janequin, or have already done that and are now back in the Ricercars with the main man here, Marco dall’Aquila. It was hard even for Harmonia Mundi to get everything into the booklet, which, with all the usual translations, is too big for its slot in the handsome digipak. No trimming of margins here. The dedicated and artful O’Dette has chosen as many solo works as he can fit onto one CD, from the music of a specific period when the lute was a key part of the instrumentation of the age. His sound is echoey, bearing sympathetic resonances that do not last long, but are there all the time, usually for longer than the individual pluckings. This texture of sound does have rather a monotonous effect by the time you get about a third of the way through, unless you are a confirmed lute-o-phile. You need to be a specialist to pick out all the…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH Six Partitas (conductor: Vladimir Ashkenazy)

  Those who enjoyed the former will not be disappointed by the latter. That same self-effacing pleasantness and distinguished musicality resounds in his Partitas. His Bach is crisp, tasteful and aristocratic. There’s no question Ashkenazy reveres Bach – at all times stepping politely aside and letting the music speak for itself. At its best, this produces a simple, unaffected elegance in his playing, and a light, spirited texture in the faster movements. At its worst, however, his no-frills style simply falls flat. The Sarabande of the first Partita is given, to my mind, a perfunctory reading; the hauntingly simple, Goldberg-like, Allemande of the fourth sounds almost sight-read; and the exciting opening movement to the fifth is almost comically undramatic. The agonisingly beautiful Sarabande of the sixth is sweet, but lacking in pathos. In the rare moments when Ashkenazy does attempt to impose his personality onto the music, one can feel that the Baroque is not his natural idiom. In the stately opening to the second Partita, for example, his attempts at dramatic contrast fail to convince. And in the trickier ornamentation and finger work passages, one can hear a looseness more appropriate to the romantic repertoire. Those accustomed to the…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TAUBERT Piano Concertos Nos 1, 2 ROSENHAIN Piano Concerto in D minor (piano: Howard Shelley; Tasmanian SO)

Wilhelm Taubert (1811-1891) was a friend of Mendelssohn and a fully paid up member of the Berlin musical establishment, despite Mendelssohn’s rather lukewarm opinion of his music. The First Concerto (1833) is, as Schumann noted, very similar to Mendelssohn’s own First Concerto – uncomfortably so, I think – even down to the facile charm and absence of breaks between movements. The Second Concerto appeared 40 years later and, while its structure is somewhat different, sounds much the same and must have seemed very old-fashioned. I found its most endearing moment the soaring cello theme in the unusual andante. Jacob Rosenhain (1813-1894) wrote his D minor Concerto in the 1840s and it’s made of altogether sterner stuff. It’s more Schumannesque, ironically, because Schumann seemed as lukewarm about Rosenhain’s later output as Mendelssohn was about Taubert’s. I found it equally charming but more dramatic, poetic and generally interesting, with an especially winsome central andante which seems more “developed” than Taubert’s – and more inspired orchestration generally. Naturally, Howard Shelley has long been in his element in this repertoire and the TSO acquit themselves well in what has virtually become their “niche”.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ROSSO Italian Baroque Arias (soprano: Patricia Petibon, Venice Baroque Orchestra/Marcon)

In truth, though, Petibon is in a far more sensible mode since her signing to Deutsche Grammophon than in the heady days of her Virgin Classics contract. While fans of her kookier ventures might miss the hilarity of those recordings, it is heartening to see her artistry mature without losing its individuality. Petibon’s vocal idiosyncrasies, albeit toned down here, remain an acquired taste. She’s happy to whisper, shout, wail or giggle on (or off) pitch, and her gamine mannerisms can be a touch excessive, but this is all underpinned by rigorous musicianship and a vivid, spectacularly agile soprano. Not surprisingly, she assails Handelian hits with panache, gaily tossing off fioritura and inventive, often stratospheric, ornaments in showpieces like Tornami a vagheggiar, while bringing pathos to Alcina’s lengthy lament, Ah, mio cor. Yet it is in the more obscure selections that Petibon really excels, whether sustaining the soft, languid lines of Scarlatti’s Caldo sangue or tripping her way through Sartorio’s Quando voglio, the jaunty jewel of an aria which opens the disc. Aided and abetted by the bright playing of the Venice Baroque Orchestra under Andrea Marcon, Petibon has produced in Rosso further testament to her inimitable artistry. Devotees will delight…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Mad Scenes (soprano: Natalie Dessay)

Here is Natalie Dessay to prove it with half a dozen demonstrations from operas such as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Bellini’s I Puritani, Verdi’s Hamlet, Bernstein’s Candide and Meyerbeer’s Le Pardon de Ploërmel. The liner notes provide a kind of potted analysis of each of the French soprano’s subjects, in case we think all madnesses are identical. Given the form she displays, we expect Dessay’s voice to be all over the place at a moment’s notice, but there it is, on the note every time. Are there any operas in which the heroine’s madness is anything other than deeply tragic? Donizetti was one composer who should know, starting and ending this CD with the two longest items on it, but finding only anguish for Dessay to sing about, even though she is allowed two minutes longer to keep looking than she is credited with in the notes. One listener’s sparkling coloratura is another listener’s silly noises, proving that a singer can have more control over their voice than they know what to usefully do with. But the rather debatable attraction of hearing the drama of over-the-top theatrical madness has been determined to be the selling point of this CD, and…

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