November 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos 8, 17, 23 (Ingrid Fliter)

Ingrid Fliter is an impressive Argentinian pianist who recently toured Australia. Following two acclaimed Chopin discs, her new recital of three of Beethoven’s Sturm und Drang sonatas is also something of a winner. Fliter plays Beethoven with an appropriately Classical demeanour. She limits the dynamic extremes and does not overdo the rubato, but within that spectrum she points detail and gets the balance right. The opening of her Pathétique is slow without being solemn, then bracingly fleet once the Allegro begins. The lovely slow movement is meltingly played. Fliter transforms the stop/start passages of the Tempest sonata’s first movement into episodes of genuine urgency and repose. This is a gripping performance. The Appassionata poses a greater challenge, both emotionally and technically. In spite of her easy flowing pianism, which takes every technical hurdle in its stride, I fear Fliter often settles for a generalised sound here – big and loud, or slow and soft as the case may be –  whereas Paul Lewis, whose Appassionata is one the best recordings in his Beethoven survey, maps the emotional contours of this forward-looking work with unwavering focus, making something unique and specific of every moment.

November 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL: Ariodante (Joyce DiDonato; Il Complesso Barocco/Curtis)

Despite its rather bizarre Scottish setting, Ariodante is one of Handel’s more convincing opera seria with a plot lifted from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. No magic here, no cross-dressing – just a highly effective tale of love, jealousy and betrayal. As a result it has held its own on the stage and there are fine recordings against which to measure this newcomer. Alan Curtis has had a long, perhaps hit-and-miss career championing lesser-known Handel, but in this case I am pleased to announce a palpable hit. Il Complesso Barocco is in excellent form with vigorous but flexible tempi and ravishing orchestral colour. And this recording is blessed with no less than three quite perfect female voices. Heading the list is probably the greatest Handel mezzo of today: Joyce DiDonato in superlative voice, thrilling in attack and responsive to text. Her great Act 2 aria, Scherza infida, is utterly riveting and most moving. The other cast members are not overshadowed in the slightest. Ginevra is given an intense and elegant reading by the remarkable Karina Gauvin, bringing a refreshing depth to her character, while the insinuating Polinesso is sung with great panache by silky-toned contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux. There are excellent performances too…

November 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: R STRAUSS: Ein Heldenleben; Four Last Songs (Dorothea Roschmann s; Rotterdam PO/Nezet-Seguin)

I’ve always found Richard Strauss’s character a real mystery: a smug, rather banal bourgeois with a narcissistic streak, he wrote sublime music which itself often teeters on the edge of banality. I enjoyed this Heldenleben but, at 47 minutes, the hero, while not exactly an arthritic Colonel Blimp, isn’t a young buck full of rising sap, either. This is surprising, considering Yannick Nézet-Séguin is one of the most athletic conductors around today. The opening lacks the self-confident swagger that Beecham brought to it for EMI (at the age of 80). In the second movement, the “battle” rages effectively enough, although I can never escape the feeling that Mahler depicts his critics far more bitingly in the Rondo burlesque of his Ninth Symphony. Strauss’s wife Pauline, a granite-jawed termagant in real life, comes across relatively sympathetically in the extended (and ravishingly played) violin solo of the third movement. The ending, depicting the hero’s retrospective contemplation, is simply too slow, although the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s horns are glorious. The orchestra, which plays well throughout, also sounds very distant and was recorded at a curiously low level. I’d prefer any of Karajan’s readings, or Fritz Reiner’s legendary RCA one. The Four Last Songs feature…

October 27, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Il Progetto Vivaldi Vol 2: Cello Concertos (Sol Gabetta; Cappella Gabetta)

Argentinean cellist Sol Gabetta was named Gramophone Young Artist of the Year in 2010, but she had turned heads internationally as one to watch even before the release of the Vivaldi Project album in 2007, her first foray into Baroque music played on gut strings. On that recording she opted for the Italian group Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca but for this second instalment she has formed her own Cappella Gabetta. Ensemble playing in the opening Cello Concerto RV423 is crisp and clean bordering on dispassionate, but the Cappella perks up for the taut unison introduction to the G minor RV416, and in the final Allegro Gabetta dashes off rapid virtuosic passages with brio and finesse. She is equally at ease with the gold-spun cantabile lines of the RV420 Andante. The bold Allegro doesn’t have the cracking pace of Han-Na Chang and the London Chamber Orchestra for EMI – as a result Gabetta’s intonation is more precise, her phrasing more subtle and expansive. The Sonata for Cello and Continuo RV42 breaks from the homogenous string orchestra sound for a sombre, more intimate setting, stylish and warm enough to leave me hoping for Gabetta’s Bach Cello Suites on disc next. The…

October 27, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor (Natalie Dessay; Piotr Beczala; Mariinsky Orch and Chorus/Gergiev)

This live Lucia from the Mariinsky Theatre boasts remarkable music-making from the orchestra, coupled with some impassioned singing from the star principals and the chorus. But it ultimately falls short in musical and dramatic cohesion, perhaps because it was a concert presentation. Dessay’s performance is engaging throughout, yet she only really thrives during her signature mad scene, where she employs a wide palette of vocal colours to convey Lucia’s descent into insanity. Beczala demonstrates outstanding technical control throughout the demanding role of Edgardo, but his phrasing is unimaginative and his performance low on dramatic insight. The dark, rich baritone of Vladislav Sulimsky adds depth to the oft-overlooked role of Enrico and contrasts nicely with the light tonal qualities of Dessay and Beczala. The chorus has some great moments (even if its Italian diction leaves much to be desired) and the orchestra delivers some thrilling climaxes, but more lyrical sensitivity in the Act 1 love duet would have created a more satisfying musical performance overall. The highlight of this recording is Dessay’s mad scene, including the original chilling glass harmonica accompaniment, played by Sascha Reckert.

October 27, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BERLIOZ: Beatrice and Bendict Overture; Harold in Italy (viola: David Aaron Carpenter; Helsinki PO/Ashkenazy)

The first thing I noticed was the spectacular fidelity of the recording and how beautifully the harp arpeggios are captured at the very beginning of Harold in Italy. One unique feature of this recording of Berlioz’s strange concertante work/tone-poem hybrid is the restoration of virtuosic passages in the first movement, expressly composed for the dedicatee, Paganini, and later suppressed by Berlioz (why has it taken so long for someone to restore them?). Carpenter’s tone is sumptuous but the quintessentially elegiac voice of his viola is enlivened with wonderfully mercurial flashes from both the soloist and Ashkenazy with the hyper-alert orchestra. The pilgrims seem a happy band and the Serenade of the Abruzzi mountaineer to his sweetheart is winsomely played by the American violist. The final movement, The Brigands’ Orgy, is particularly dramatic. I don’t think anyone can surpass Charles Munch in his old Boston performance on RCA, but these forces come close. Among modern competitors, I’d put Sir Colin Davis and Tabea Zimmermann (LSO Live) and Lorin Maazel’s New York Philharmonic version with Cynthia Phelps (Deutsche Grammophon) on the same level. The only problem I had with this release was the choice of fill-ups. The Beatrice and Benedict overture is fine…

October 26, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Birthday (Natalie Eleftheriadis, Kestie Morassi, James Harkness)

An endlessly meandering Australian drama set mostly inside a brothel during a single day, Birthday has its origins – rather too obviously – in a stage play by the film’s writer-director, James Harkness.  An examination of love, sex and faith in a hard-bitten world, the film has a heart and a trio of fine performances from Natalie Eleftheriadis and the always highly watchable Kestie Morassi (Zarah Garde Wilson in Underbelly) as Emma and Lily, two sex worker friends, and Richard Wilson as Joey, a shy young man in crisis. But what seem to be good intentions are undone by slack pacing, a low octane bordering on non-existent narrative and a serious lack of dramatic juice that shows the writer hasn’t given nearly enough thought about how to effectively reconfigure his stage production for the big screen.  In place of cause and effect interactions that advance the story we get a seemingly endless stream of intimate conversations, where characters tell each other how they feel rather than showing it through their actions. As much as I wanted to be moved by Eleftheriadis, who played the role on stage, there’s never the dramatic context needed to make her fine acting meaningful.

October 21, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN, LISZT, RAVEL: Piano works (Benjamin Grosvenor)

In 2008 a friend gave me a piano CD titled This & That. It was a fascinating recital of music by Kapustin, Albeniz and Scarlatti, played with incredible dash by a British pianist who had just turned 16. Benjamin Grosvenor has since made many public appearances, including one at the Proms, and at 19 has secured a contract with Decca. This disc is the result. Chopin’s four Scherzi are exciting pieces, and often figure in the repertoire of young pianists. One of Argerich’s early triumphs was the Scherzo No 3, while the youthful Ashkenazy turned heads with No 4; both their recordings remain iconic. Grosvenor plays the four pieces as dazzling études. The First seems on the verge of being rushed, yet the accuracy and dynamic detail of Grosvenor’s finger work is mind-boggling. He goes at full speed but pulls it off, also finding plenty of poetry in the lyrical sections. His Third is more lightweight than some (Pollini, for instance) and the cascades of notes decorating the central chorale could be more ethereal. This may be a function of the piano sound, which is rather bright at the top. His Nocturnes are sensitively played, though maturity will bring a greater inwardness in this…

October 21, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Tori Amos: Night of Hunters

Treading the path of many revered rockers who have dared to dabble in classical music late in their careers, Tori Amos makes her Deutsche Grammophon debut with a contemporary song cycle drawing on the music of Bach, Schubert, Debussy et al. as a harmonic framework. Luckily, the patron saint of female singer-songwriters has the right mix of indie cred and training as a classical pianist (ending in rebellion) to pull it off in style. The eclectic range of pieces that comprise Night of Hunters illumines Amos’s narrative of a relationship in crisis, told in a curious blend of mythical and prosaic language. The high-octane, Nymanesque opener Shattering Sea (Alkan) sets a turbulent scene, John Philip Shenale’s propulsive chamber arrangement featuring bassoon, clarinet and strings. Not all the songs live up to this promise though. The Satie Gnossienne suffers most, as Amos awkwardly breaks up words to fit what should be a floating melody – only her own newly composed bridge section charms the ear. But Fearlessness, Job’s Coffin and Nautical Twilight are exemplary Amos ballads in classical garb (with a girlish, Kate Bush vocal twist), while Edge of the Moon reveals the singer-pianist at her most vulnerable, to the tune…

October 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RAMEAU: Orchestral Suites for Louis XV (Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall)

This 2-CD set of dance numbers from Rameau operas captures Jordi Savall’s period-instrument band Le Concert des Nations playing with all the lusty, effervescent joie de vivre the music demands. The “suites” put together by Savall trace a similar but more unified trajectory to Marc Minkowski’s Imaginary Symphony Rameau album (Les Musiciens du Louvre on Archiv). The present collection is a reminder that the composer’s instrumental music was just as thrilling and inventive as what he wrote for the voice: earthy and robust like a good Provençal stew, without sacrificing the majestic air of refinement that captivated the court of Versailles. One can only marvel at the punchy phrasing in the overture to Zoroastre and be seduced by the exotic percussion in Air des Incas from Les Indes Galantes. An authentic musette, that rare and peculiar Gallic bagpipe, makes an appearance in Naïs to spice up the French Baroque palette. Natural horns in Les Boréades, Rameau’s final tragédie en musique, are less graceful than Les Arts Florissants’ under William Christie (Opus Arts DVD) but richer for their pungency. Surging strings, turbulent transverse flute and a wind machine summon elemental forces, while delicate gavottes have more charm and snappy detail than…

October 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN: Complete Waltzes (piano: Stephen Hough)

The greatest music — say, a late Beethoven piano sonata — exists in its own realm. It does not automatically conjure up images of the period in which it was written. Chopin’s waltzes do, and that is why they are sometimes thought of as glorified salon music. It takes a pianist with the sensibility of Stephen Hough to reveal the art behind their mixture of effervescence and sentimentality. Chopin himself regarded his waltzes as comparative trifles; he only published half of them and often gave the manuscripts to young ladies as gifts.  Hough’s facility with lighter music is well documented in his mixed recitals. He has an instinctive knowledge of when to relax and when to press forward, which is used to charming effect in this beautifully recorded collection. In both the Minute and the C-sharp minor waltzes (from the Op 64 set) Hough subtly caresses the melodic lines, and breezes through the scale passages with an evenness of touch, never making too great a point of virtuosity. Mirroring the composer’s achievement, this is the art that conceals art. The delicacy of Hough’s approach also benefits the unpublished waltzes, many of which are less complex and less polished than the popular favourites….

October 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Bullets and Lullabies (piano: James Rhodes)

I hate to sound like an old fogy here but I guess it’s unavoidable. James Rhodes is a British pianist whose rocketing career is fuelled by media-savvy management, celebrity endorsements and an individual presentational style combining the downmarket look of Nigel Kennedy with a troubled rock star rep: a history of mental issues, a failed marriage, and the inevitable refusal to toe the line. While many classical musicians have had broken marriages and some have suffered breakdowns, few have used that information to market a persona. (Rhodes is a better pianist than David Helfgott, incidentally.)  Rhodes’ notes on the music are subtly ingratiating: the Toccata from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin is “me wrestling with London Transport as I head off on the tube to see my shrink”. What it is not, in Rhodes’ splashy rendition, is a meticulous salute to the Baroque clavecinist.The Scherzo from Beethoven’s Sonata Op 31 No 3 suits Rhodes with its snappy sforzandi, but other fast pieces are messy (single movements from sonatas by Alkan and Chopin), while Debussy’s La plus que Lente and Ravel’s Pavane lack poetry. This release is aimed at people who don’t know the music. That’s to be encouraged, no doubt, but…

October 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams)

There’s a case to be made that Woody Allen’s career has been grievously underrated in its autumnal stage, especially some of the films made in Europe such as Matchpoint and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, both reviewed somewhat grudgingly. In future years Midnight in Paris will bolster a more upbeat view of his later films. The story is certainly familiar Allen fare, its fantasy scenario in the spirit of The Purple Rose of Cairo. An artistically frustrated contemporary Hollywood screenwriter (Owen Wilson) is repeatedly spirited into the artistic bohemia of 1930s Paris during a visit to the city with his materialistic fiancee (Rachel McAdams). Offered lifts in a vintage limousine during his solo night walks, he hobnobs at elegant soirees with the likes of Cocteau, Picasso, Hemingway, Dali and Stein, and falls for a beautiful artist’s muse (Marion Cotillard).  Even by Allen’s standards, the dialogue is consistently witty, the supporting performances full of delight – Adrien Brody’s Dali and Kathy Bates’s Stein are two of many. And adding depth to the comedy is a smart thematic idea: that golden ages are never golden to those living through them, who merely hanker to escape their own period too.

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