January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RAVEL Tzigane: Music for Violin, Cello and Piano (violin: Kristian Winther, cello: Michelle Wood, piano: Anthony Romaniuk)

I find this pared-back version by far the more powerful. The Hungarian Gypsy flavouring accentuates the drama of the work, like a fiery shot of grappa in espresso. Violinist Kristian Winther is the showcased artist here, with Anthony Romaniuk and Michelle Wood providing sympathetic accompaniment. Kristian, originally from Canberra, is only 25. This recording suggests he is poised on the edge of a great career. His playing is sensitive when called for, but is distinguished in the main by a full-blooded vigour and impetuousness which is never less than totally exciting. The four works heard here – Tzigane, Sonata for Violin and Piano Number 2, Piece in the Form of a Habanera and the Sonata for Violin and Cello – span from 1907 to 1922 and include some of the most aggressive and dynamic of Ravel’s chamber writing – what he called his ‘motor’ or ‘mechanised’ style. That sounds heartless – but nothing Ravel wrote could be termed that. There’s too much soul incorporated in his driving rhythms. The acoustics on this SACD are as exceptional as anything Melba has produced, which means close to recorded perfection. This is a hybrid-disc, which means that if your player cannot reproduce SACD,…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH Cantatas Vol 41 (bass: Peter Kooij, soprano: Carolyn Sampson; Bach Collegium Japan/Suzuki)

Impeccable playing standards, coupled with BIS’s outstandingly clear SACD recording technology and the fine acoustics of the Shoin Women’s University Chapel make these recordings real sonic treasures. If Bach could hear these recordings I am sure he would have been moved beyond words hearing the love and care these players bring to his music. It is also a clear indicator of the way classical music is expanding in Asia and how our finest practitioners of the near future will most likely be Japanese, Korean or Chinese. There are no post-colonial qualifiers required here – these performances are amongst the finest in the world and clearly have a particular sensibility which favours the most intimate expressions of Bach’s various methods of text painting. It is particularly pleasing to hear Ich Habe Genug BWV 82 sung by a soprano rather than baritone or mezzo, in this case Carolyn Sampson, who effortlessly sustains the line and mood. The bass Peter Kooij is featured in Cantatas BWV 56 and 158 and he is equally commanding in his delivery, though perhaps not as emotionally engaging as Sampson. The concluding chorales are sung by four singers, one to a part, which seems totally organic in terms…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas Vol. 8 (piano: Andras Schiff)

There are even fewer things whose meaning continues to grow deeper with examination. T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Mark Rothko’s mature paintings and late Beethoven generally come to mind. Here is a recording of the last three sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, that is the most serious attempt to reveal the secrets of these sublime works since Richard Goode’s 1987 versions for Nonesuch 30 years ago. Curiously, the other classic recording it brings to mind is Glenn Gould’s made another 30 years before that in 1956. And of course everyone still measures every subsequent Beethoven cycle against the original Artur Schnabel 1930s recordings made 30 years before that. Perhaps it can only happen once a generation that someone takes us to new heights with their insights into this material. To paraphrase August Kleinzahler, this music is like “light passing through muslin… if it were fabric, it would come apart in your hands”. These late sonatas remain a mountain top whose crest keeps giving way to a further summit, hovering perpetually on the horizon, to which we head towards without ever arriving. Only after 20 years of playing the late Beethoven Quartets did Rostislav Dubinsky of the Borodin Quartet finally feel…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas Vol. 8 (piano: Andras Schiff)

There are even fewer things whose meaning continues to grow deeper with examination. T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Mark Rothko’s mature paintings and late Beethoven generally come to mind. Here is a recording of the last three sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, that is the most serious attempt to reveal the secrets of these sublime works since Richard Goode’s 1987 versions for Nonesuch 30 years ago. Curiously, the other classic recording it brings to mind is Glenn Gould’s made another 30 years before that in 1956. And of course everyone still measures every subsequent Beethoven cycle against the original Artur Schnabel 1930s recordings made 30 years before that. Perhaps it can only happen once a generation that someone takes us to new heights with their insights into this material. To paraphrase August Kleinzahler, this music is like “light passing through muslin… if it were fabric, it would come apart in your hands”. These late sonatas remain a mountain top whose crest keeps giving way to a further summit, hovering perpetually on the horizon, to which we head towards without ever arriving. Only after 20 years of playing the late Beethoven Quartets did Rostislav Dubinsky of the Borodin Quartet finally feel…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BRUCKNER Symphony No. 5 in B flat (Orchestre des Champs-Elysées/Herrewghe)

Allegedly his favourite, it’s the only one not subjected to disfiguring (often disastrous) cuts and revisions by others, or the composer himself. The stately introduction to the First Movement, revisited at the start of both the Second and Fourth, the strange stop/start scherzo with its aborted waltz which never seems to get going properly, the strangely jaunty, almost ironic, Till Eulenspiegel-like clarinet theme before the titanic fugue of the Finale are all wonderful. All Bruckner Symphonies are, to an extent, architectural, but the Fifth is, like the Eighth, the symphonic equivalent of a gothic cathedral. What amazes me about this recording and performance is the heft and richness of the sound achieved with only 67 musicians. Interpretively, this is one of Bruckner’s trickiest symphonies in terms of tempo fluctuations which threaten the overarching structure. Herreweghe negotiates these successfully without them sounding like awkward gear changes, especially in the complex First Movement, where the slower, quieter passages assume an intensely introverted quality which suits the music admirably. That only four horn players in final brass chorale can achieve such an apotheosis is miraculous. This is a wonderful alternative to the Karajan’s one and Jochum’s three versions.

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Così fan tutte (singers: Karita Mattila, Anne Sofie von Otter, Francisco Araiza, Thomas Allen; Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Marriner)

Così fan tutte is a fiendishly difficult opera to get right. Text is continually undercut by subtext and the veracity with which characters behave and emote is repeatedly called into question. Distinguishing feigned sincerity from genuine sincerity is no easy task. Intelligent directors are able to address these issues in staged realisations of the opera but it is rather more difficult to address them on a recording This 3-disc set was originally released (on Philips) in 1990 and is mostly successful in negotiating the opera’s many challenges (challenges which, when tackled astutely, make this such an outstanding work). Marriner has assembled some impressive names (including José van Dam as Don Alfonso) and for the most part they live up to their reputations. The ensembles offer opportunities for some wonderful singing and compelling repartee. Karita Mattila and Anne Sofie von Otter are well-matched as sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella but, surprisingly, Mattila is less impressive on her own and underwhelms in both of her set pieces, ‘Come scoglio’ and ‘Per pietà’. Also surprising is the sometimes ragged playing of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the occasionally sluggish accompanied recitatives. But all-in-all this re-release is to be applauded, especially…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MARTINU Cello Concertos Nos. 1, 2; Concertino for Cello (cello: Raphael Wallfisch; Czech Phil/Belohlavek)

These works have the melodic fluency and musicality that are the birthright of all Czech composers. Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) wrote nearly 400 works including 16 operas and 11 ballets. It seems odd that, with all its excellent qualities, his music has not become more popular than it is. Perhaps the fact that he left Czechoslovakia in 1923 meant that he lost touch with his homeland and his natural audience. He continued to write Czech-style music (the second Concerto contains reminiscences of Czech Christmas music) but this lacked a ready audience in the West. Another factor may have been that the second Cello Concerto had to wait 20 years after it was written before it received its first performance and the Concertino had to wait 25 years. The first Concerto was composed in 1930 and revised in 1939 and again in 1955. It is an impressive work but gives the impression of being worked-over and tampered with too much and some of the material is rather episodic. It was dedicated to the French cellist Pierre Fournier. The second Concerto, composed in 1944/45, is altogether more impressive. The material is more homogeneous and the musical argument clearer and more logical.  The Concertino…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Rossini: The Italian Girl in Algiers (various artists)

While the score is not consistently as good as that of Cinderella, for example, it merits attention and admiration. This recording is aimed at a different market to the traditional one, so highlights are as much as some opera buffs might want. With 78 minutes of music the selection offers a good overview of the work, though I doubt the wisdom of using overtures in recordings of vocal highlights. Chandos have wisely concentrated on the ensembles as Rossini, like Mozart, was at his best in these. The brilliant Act 1 Finale is a test for all the singers. Managing fast patter clearly while remaining in balance with the accelerating ensemble is a principal aim of performance in these operas, and this brilliant finale provides one of the great moments in opera. In contrast, the Cavatina from Act 2 (preceded by an exquisitely played cello solo) is a fine example of how the composer could handle the delicate tracery of slow bel canto.  Opera in English has its pitfalls.As a singing language it can’t hold a candle to Italian; where many open vowels allow the singers to extend notes. Translator David Parry has done very well, making textural sense as well…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Idomeneo (tenor: Richard Croft, mezzo: Bernada Fink, sopranos: Sunhae Im, Alexandrina Pendatchanska; Freiburger Barockorchester, RIAS Kammerchor/Jacobs)

After a disappointing Don Giovanni, Jacobs has come up with a wonderful Idomeneo. Perhaps it is the strong French streak that runs through Mozart’s dramma per musica that has brought out the best in him. Whatever the reason, there is much that is first-rate in this 3-disc set. Jacobs has wisely decided to include in the recording passages that were excised when Idomeneo was first performed in Munich in 1781. These include Elettra’s ‘D’Oreste, d’Aiace’ and Idomeneo’s ‘Torna la pace al core’. Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska delivers a riveting account of the former and American tenor Richard Croft offers a beautiful reading of the latter (although, as is often the case with Jacobs, the tempo is a little too brisk for my taste). Croft has a warm, natural voice and his contribution throughout is one of the recording’s great attributes. Sunhae Im, in the role of Ilia, is suitably sweet of voice but she has a limited tonal range. However, as a whole the principals are well chosen and the famous quartet is outstanding. The Freiburger Barockorchester offers thrilling and incisive playing and the RIAS Kammerchor captures superbly the full range of the choral writing. As an added bonus, this…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Complete String Quartets (Goldner String Quartet)

This is such an offering. The Goldner Quartet is drawn from members of the Australian Ensemble and led by Dene Olding, one of Australia’s most respected violinists. His choice of instrument speaks volumes: he plays a Joseph Guarnerius. The other members are Dimity Hall (violin), Irina Morozova (viola) and Julian Smiles (cello) and they combine to perfection. Beethoven’s 17 works for string quartet (including the ‘Grosse Fuge’ which was originally composed as the finale for another of the quartets) are heard here as a complete performance cycle, recorded at the Sydney Conservatorium between 19 August and 5 September, 2004. The recording quality is so fine that the sound of audience applause at the close of the first quartet comes as a real shock. There is absolutely no indication before then that this is a live recording. No coughs, no fidgeting, no latecomers – this is as all concerts should be but so rarely are. But the live nature of the recording is what marks it out. For as we progress through the eight CDs, through the relative simplicity of the first six quartets to the sudden leap in maturity of the three Razumovsky quartets, and finally to the profound gravid…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN Various works (piano: Maria João Pires, cello: Pavel Gomziakov)

Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires’s life has recently had some dramatic upheavals. Heart surgery and a move away from her native Portugal (where she felt vilified) to Brazil, have given the pianist, now in her early 60s, cause for reflection.  All of the music on this two-CD set was written during the last five years of Chopin’s life, when his health was failing, his relationship with novelist George Sand ended and he remained in exile from his beloved Poland.  Pires describes Chopin’s music of this period as containing memories – that is, when a dance rhythm occurs, Chopin is not writing a dance but about the memory of a dance previously held. It is this nostalgic feeling that dominates these performances and the result is outstanding.  In the hands of a lesser pianist the Sonata No. 3 can sound episodic and mechanical, particularly in the first movement which is crowded with new ideas and shifting harmonies. Pires’s wonderful phrasing allows the music to speak for itself and she has a seemingly intuitive understanding of the late composer’s wishes.  Likewise, the Mazurkas and Valses are outstanding and the Nocturnes (surely the most nostalgic of this composer’s output) stand comparison with Claudio…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MONTEVERDI L’Incoronazione di Poppea (soprano: Danielle de Niese, mezzo: Alice Coote; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Haim)

This DVD of the Glyndebourne production from 2008 has some outstanding singing, particularly from the two key protagonists, the ambitious courtesan Poppea (sung by Danielle de Niese and acted with seductive style) and her lover and eventual husband, the emperor Nerone (Alice Coote). The performance is distinguished too by the extraordinary vocal presence of Iestyn Davies in the role of Poppea’s lover Ottone. He is simply one of the finest counter-tenors I have heard in years. The performance is worth persevering with just for his revelatory work. Persevering is the right word. This Glyndebourne performance, directed by Canadian Robert Carsen and with sets and costumes by Michael Levine and Constance Hoffram, is one of the most boring productions I’ve seen. Memories of The Australian Opera’s production from the 1990s highlight the paucity of imagination of this production. Everything is red. Red, red, red. The sets consist for the most part of red curtains which open to reveal still more red curtains. The characters sit on stark modern red chairs in front of the curtains. Their costumes are all boring modern dress, which fail to alleviate the boredom of the sets. There is a lot of gender-bending in the performances, both…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BOTTESINI various works (double-bass: Thomas Martin, piano: Anthony Halstead, soprano: Jacquelyn F

The title track may have originally been performed with orchestra, and the name of the Italian composer Giovanni Bottesini does still turn up occasionally in concert programs, but this CD offers nothing longer than about 10 minutes and instrumentally features only double bass and piano, which makes it salon fare much more than music for the concert hall. Much of the action takes place comparatively high on the fretwork, which avoids the sound being too far down in the dumps, but gives it that air of a big instrument doing what it is told rather than what is natural. There are limits as to what even Paganini could have done with a double bass, restricted to relative slow motion. A rather plodding Air on the G String by Bach, perhaps, the only familiar tune here, but not the four songs included to show that Bottesini did have more than one string to his bow. Inevitably they come across as rather sad songs. Respects, though, to Naxos for acknowledging the music of Bottesini, and the earnest performers for giving him his due, but this is one of those CDs for aficionados. 

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