January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TCHAIKOVSKY • RACHMANINOV Piano Trios (piano: Lang Lang; violin: Vadim Repin; cello: Mischa Maisky)

Deutsche Grammophon announces this as Lang Lang’s first CD of chamber music and, on the whole, it is successful. The Tchaikovsky Trio was written in 1881 in memory of Nicholas Rubinstein, pianist and founder of Moscow’s Conservatory – a man who had both praised and denounced Tchaikovsky and who aroused conflicting emotions in him. It consists of two movements – a Pezzo elegiaco and a theme with 11 variations and a coda. The second movement was considered by Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries to be a musical portrait of Rubinstein’s many-faceted personality. The music does not sound particularly elegiac. It is typically Tchaikovskian in its melodies and depth of emotion, but sometimes seems a bit too long for its material. The distinguished performers treat the music sensitively, accurately and with considerable exuberance. At times, particularly in the coda of the second movement, they might be considered too vehement and sometimes push their tone too much. The Rachmaninov Trio (not to be confused with his later and better known Trio elegiaco) is a youthful work written in four days when the composer was 19. It is in one movement with many tempo variations and many contrasting moods. It is a self-contained piece of music of considerable drama and…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: JC BACH La dolce fiamma: forgotten castrato arias (counter-tenor: Philippe Jaroussky; Le Cercle de l’Harmonie/Rhorer)

Are we living in a golden age of music-making? It’s inevitable that we always reference the past. No generation before ours has had its immediate predecessors so thoroughly chronicled. The musicians of the past are not just the stuff of legend – they are with us every day. Philippe Jaroussky need not worry about such comparisons. His is a counter-tenor whose falsetto voice is so high that it has almost lost all characteristics of that genre.  As Australian audiences know, his voice is so clear and white that it is unnervingly close to a female soprano. He may lack the utter purity and beauty of the best sopranos in the highest register but replacing it is an almost unnerving other-world open-edged timbre. The period accompaniment from the Cercle de l’Harmonie is deft and assured. The lively lyricism of JS Bach’s youngest son is heard here in a way that has perhaps not been possible for a couple of centuries. Jaroussky is an idiosyncratic counter-tenor. He certainly does not supplant my memories of past greats such as Michael Chance or our own Graham Pushee. But he is perhaps unique amongst today’s counter-tenors and must be heard to be believed. This is truly…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RACHMANINOV Symphony No. 2; Caprice Bohémien (Sydney Symphony/Ashkenazy)

This entire performance lasts just a few seconds under an hour (one of the longest in the catalogue) and the Sydney Symphony plays well, with a convincing pulse. They played it repeatedly under Ashkenazy’s predecessor Edo de Waart but the strings are lacking the last ounce of luxuriance and the brass tone refulgent throughout. I enjoy hearing these wonderful heartfelt melodies unfold in a leisurely rather than manic way, however, I would have appreciated a little more urgency, and that uniquely Slavic sense of yearning in this beautiful, highly strung score, rather than languor bordering on lethargy. One thing I did like was the authentic final chord where Ashkenazy dispenses with the timpani thwack leaving just a morose grunt from the double basses. Things improve with the spiky, Prokofiev-like scherzo (taken at a moderate tempo) and the soft-centred trio is ravishingly handled. In the emotional core of the work, the famous adagio, Ashkenazy creates just the right flow without mawkish sentimentality or excessively overwhelming climaxes. The finale also radiates festive exuberance with the climaxes carefully controlled and gradated. The youthful Caprice Bohémien makes a very generous fill-up played with great abandon. Sound and balances are satisfactory. 

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Barber 100th Anniversary (various performers)

EMI is celebrating his birth by releasing this treasure trove of wonderful music. There is something for everybody: Do you want one of the loveliest works for string orchestra? Here’s the famous Adagio – as well as the string quartet from which it comes. How about one of the best violin concertos written in the last century? Do you prefer something with more orchestral zing? Then the Overture to‘The School for Scandal’ will fit the bill. Barber’s orchestra style was pungent and full of restless energy. The Essay for Orchestra is a good example. The opening is reminiscent of the Adagio. From there the work moves forward nobly and more energetically. What is clear in a work such as this, is the composer’s assuredness, clear musical view and an ability to create well structured and compelling works in a familiar and yet original way. That said, I have heard more exciting performances of this fine work. This version under Leonard Slatkin is well played, while Barbara Hendricks gives a sympathetic reading of Knoxville. Some of his other lovely song settings are very English in style and effect. This is not a criticism, but interesting nonetheless. Thomas Allen sings them superbly,…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ROGER Piano Sonata; Piano Trio; Variations on an Irish Air (Gould Piano Trio)

So assuming we start with only limited knowledge of him or his music, we can at least hear that he left this world while in a rather sombre mood. If one had to pin down one key characteristic of Roger’s style, it would be a sensitivity to the nature of individual instruments, when he scores them as interactively as he does here. For example, in the Quintet for clarinet, two violins, viola and cello, he lets the clarinet participate in proceedings, rather than dominate them, finding a pitch for it that at times actually masks its identity as a clarinet. Given that the next item here happens to be the earliest of these works, his Piano Sonata (1943), the fact they share the same feeling means we do not need long to mark a consistency in Roger’s work. On the way through, he lifts the mood with a slightly less dour feel at mid-point for the Trio, and reveals a shade more thoughtfulness in the earlier Variations. Roger writes with no sign of heavy-handedness, delivering an overall sound that is modern, tonal mid-20th century, without conforming to any particular program or movement. The overall experience is that of an agreeable…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: DAUGHERTY Fire and Blood; MotorCity Triptych; Raise the Roof (violin: Ida Kavafian; Detroit SO/Järvi)

The composer traces musical connections to the natural drama of volcanic eruptions in Mexico, the industrial landscape of Detroit and the genesis of the civil rights movement in Alabama. The opening three-movement violin concerto, Fire and Blood, wastes no time acquainting us with what has been firing Daugherty’s musical imagination. The work channels all the energy the composer and the players can marshal directly into our ears. Kavafian works like a Trojan, and was probably thankful to have the rest of this “live” CD off to be able to recover his strength. The MotorCity Triptych is a loud and violent depiction of industrial Detroit. A listener looking for time to reflect and savour the music has come to the wrong composer. By the time we come to the third work, and Raise the Roof begins, eyes may well have been turned upwards to see if the roof was anywhere in sight after the music that had been pounding away for the best part of the previous hour. The music belongs to the mid-20th century at its noisiest and most relentless, and you may like to have a CD of recovery music handy to wind down with afterwards. Heavy metal might…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BRAHMS Piano Concerto No 2, Klavierstücke (piano: Nicholas Angelich; Frankfurt RSO/Järvi)

Nicholas Angelich certainly has the measure of this gigantic work. Any performance lasting more than 50 minutes is usually in trouble; any lasting less than, say, 46, likewise. At just over 48, Angelich is splendidly central – in terms of tempi at least. However, his opening movement reveals his technique, insights and sensitivity as equally impressive, with Olympian grandeur tempering this storm-tossed music.  In the scherzo, Angelich is truly demonic, but more adversarial than belligerent in his attitude to the orchestra. The cello solo at the opening of the slow movement I find slightly mundane, but it seems more eloquent in its subsequent appearance. Here, Angelich finds much beautifully veiled yet profound emotion, whereas in the finale, he is delightfully skittish.  The eight Klavierstücke Op 76 are an excellent complement. Although composed at much the same time, they occupy a different world. Titled either Capriccio or Intermezzo, all are gentle and introspective, except No 2, sprightly and even spiky, and No 5, with its touches of restrained rhetoric, providing a foretaste of the radiant autumnal quality of Brahms’ later piano pieces. Angelich reveals more sense of Innigkeit – “inwardness”, very important in Brahms – than Ciccolini or even Gieseking.

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SWEELINCK Psaumes français; Canciones Sacrae (Cappella Amsterdam/Reuss)

This CD, another of many which present their entire length free of instruments, is packaged with the usual care and precision of harmonia mundi, sharply constructed and printed with a learned but readable description of the people and their music, with no unwanted capital letters. Cappella Amsterdam has developed under its director Daniel Reuss over the past 40 years to their present formidable strength. Of the 25 members pictured in the group photo in the liner notes, 18 of them are granted individual parts to sing on this recording. But it’s impossible to pick anyone out, as the essence of the idea is that the choir delivers all that is heard, with no allowance for solo deviations. It would take an early vocal music specialist to really separate the ten works presented here into significant individual items, though the words are all there for the asking in the usual languages. The sound quality of the recording is consistent throughout, conforming with all relevant expectations. There is clearly a sizeable market out there for historic sacred music of this type, judging by the number of new releases we see every year. This particular disc meets all the criteria for respectability without…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ANGEL SONGS (Choir of Trinity College, University of Melbourne/Jones)

The most modern composition – and the only secular piece on the album – is derived from a lullaby (‘Goodnight my Angel’ by American pop singer Billy Joel), which is given the full King’s Singers treatment by that vocal group’s chief arranger. It’s a very cloying piece indeed, matched here in saccharine levels only by one of my pet hates, Brahms’ Lullaby. But those two are the only doses of cloying sweetness found on this rich anthology of near-perfect choral singing, which also forms a platform for some very fine soloists from the Trinity College choir. Composers featured here include Mozart, Handel, Mendelssohn, Purcell and Haydn, while modern choral specialists such as John Rutter, David Willcocks and Herbert Howells are also heard to fine advantage. It’s very difficult to single out just one piece from the 20 choral works presented here. But soprano Siobhan Stagg’s contribution to Mozart’s Laudate Dominum is certainly worthy of special mention for its clarity and purity. The exultant Purcell offering, ‘Hark! The echoing Air’ from The Fairy Queen is given a truly exultant performance by the ensemble, with fine playing from trumpeter Mark Fitzpatrick and cellist Michelle Wood. The recording, which was made in the…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RUO To the Four Corners (conductor: Huang Ruo)

He describes some of his musicians as dramatists in real time, a notion that Ruo tosses off in his closely reasoned appraisal of what form he wants his music to take. Since this is a CD, however, we only have our ears to help us work out what is going on. This is a considerable problem. What do we need to do to appreciate the sound of what Ruo calls “kinetic painting”, for example? And more importantly for someone who has to review it, how many stars is it worth? Aurally, which is the only way we have to judge Ruo’s work, this seems to be music in the style of contemporary leading edge. Western and Chinese instruments are deployed in complex interactions that have nothing much to do with anything traditional or even familiar in musical structure. Without making it easy to get to grips with his methods, then, Ruo is committed to nudging music in directions nobody else seems to know are feasible, or has any interest in exploring. His work is certainly a struggle to decode, but there is a sense to Ruo’s music that affirms the composer as articulate and sensitive

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ELGAR Pomp and Circumstance Marches; Serenade for Strings (SSO/Ashkenazy)

Exton is a Japanese label which is in partnership with the Sydney Symphony to bring us high-definition recordings in Super Audio CD format. This is one of several SACDs which presents conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy’s interpretations of England’s most beloved composer, Edward Elgar.  Ashkenazy and the SSO do Elgar proud. These six Pomp and Circumstance Marches are in turn swaggering, majestic, even thoughtful and troubled, and Ashkenazy is totally in tune with his material. At high volume, this SACD has tremendous depth and impact. The brass section really bites and the percussive power has to be heard to be believed.  There’s a tremendous range of expression in these six marches and these are model performances, especially of my favourite among them, the Third. That reference to the six marches isn’t a misprint. Elgar had always intended to write six marches, and left sketches for the last. Contemporary composer Anthony Payne has fleshed out these sketches to give us the missing march. The result works out as half-Elgar and half-Payne, but it complements the authentic five very well. The Pomp and Circumstance Marches dominate the disc, but it’s also a real pleasure to have a sensitive, finely-textured performance of Elgar’s 1892 work…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: JENKINS Stella Natalis; Joy To The World (Tenebrae, Adiemus Singers, Marylebone Camerata/Jenkins)

Yet more variations on his patent Adiemus sound are repackaged here into two lengthy, multi-movement feel-good serves, one of them devoted to a kind of shopping-centre evocation of Christmas. His customary warm vocalisations hint at something vaguely holy, intoning words mostly scribed, this time, by the pen of his wife, Carol Barratt – “handy and cheap”, as she rather disarmingly puts it. Trumpet and voice trill merrily, and, as always, the music that Jenkins makes is soothing and pleasant enough on the ear to defy any curmudgeonly whispers of it not being real classical music. His forte as a composer is his unerring affinity with his audience: that chunk of the music-buying demographic that simply wants something to smile to. The similarity of this album to all his others will surely bring him another gold disc at the very least. There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of that: Jenkins may have had the devil’s own job working to perfect the trademark sound that has won him so much success. But having done so, he now feels no compulsion to compose anything different than what has gone before. And given that the Welsh composer has garnered the laudatory acceptance…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MUSSORGSKY • SCHUMANN Pictures at an Exhibition; Kinderszenen (piano: Lief Ove Andsnes)

The recording of Pictures at an Exhibition is in fact the soundtrack to a staged performance and video installation by Andsnes and collaborator Robin Rhode. The performance has been filmed, and the liner notes tell us that Pictures Reframed involves the “murder” of a piano and a leap into the icy North Sea. This disc, however, is the pauper’s edition – there is a much more expensive deluxe version which gives us both the recording and a DVD of the Andsnes-Rhode collaboration. On audio terms alone, this is a straightforward and relatively unflamboyant performance of Pictures at an Exhibition. Like Vladimir Horowitz before him, Andsnes claims to find parts of Mussorgsky’s original composition quite awkward, and seeks to improve on them himself. His rewriting is subtle and not too destructive of a work I’ve always thought as best left unimproved. The Kinderszenen is a gentle, very persuasive reading and both this and the Pictures are given a sumptuous, velvety sheen that brings the ambience of London’s Henry Wood Hall right into your home. Mussorgsky’s Four Short Pieces, a rarely-heard 10-minute suite, rounds out a worthwhile set, though I think the full DVD/CD deluxe package would be more satisfying.

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