April 18, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: RUSSIAN FANTASY (Vladimir & Vovka Ashkenazy)

I dimly recall a Decca release in the early 1970s of Ashkenazy in the Rachmaninov Suite No 1 (Fantasie Tableau for two pianos, Op 5) with André Previn. I doubt whether it could have had more charm than this performance from Vladimir and his son Vovka. The rapport between the two pianists is seemingly effortless in drawing the listener into this magical music. I particularly responded to the gentle swirling effects of the introductory barcarolle and to the alternating intensity and ravishing lyricism of the central two movements, La Nuit, L’Amour (“Night…Love”) and Les larmes, (“Tears”). Night on the Bald Mountain doesn’t have quite the same spellbinding quality. I found the staccato passages a little relentless, although there’s clearly no other way to play them. Glinka’s Valse-Fantasie lends itself perfectly to duo piano treatment. It could have been penned by Tchaikovsky at his most melancholy.  Wonderful as they are, not even the spectacular virtuosity and chemistry of these two pianists can replicate the colour, glamour and visceral excitement of the orchestral version of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor. The Scriabin Fantasy in A Minor is somewhat more structured and less amorphous than so much of his output, described by a friend…

April 18, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: GRIEG, LISZT: Piano Concertos (Stephen Hough, Bergen PO/Litton)

It was only a matter of time before Stephen Hough, already the soloist of highly acclaimed Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky concerto cycles, added his name to the list of those who have recorded three of the most popular piano concertos of all time. Can any new insights be garnered here? With Hough, nothing is ever formulaic. His most successful offering is the Second Concerto of Liszt. Andrew Litton constantly propels the music forward, while allowing for plenty of poetry to emerge in the slow movement. Put next to Richter’s mercurial 1961 accounts of the Liszt concertos with the London Symphony under Kirill Kondrashin, Hough seems rather earthbound at the start of the First Concerto. Things improve as the work progresses though, with his beautifully limpid slow movement and a strong finale. Grieg’s hometown orchestra serves him well in his concerto, with some spirited brass playing and refined string work. Hough is quite attentive to detail, but never loses sight of the bigger Romantic picture. This is an account free of gimmicks that gives a wonderful balance of introversion and extroversion. In an overcrowded field, this disc may not be quite at the top of the pile, but there is still a…

April 18, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART: Sinfonia Concertante for Winds; Concerto for Flute and Harp (Orchestra Mozart/Abbado)

What a delightful disc. Or should I not use that adjective? It is, after all, a fallback response to the hideous tie you get from your auntie at Christmas. How about: relaxing? Or invigorating? All these epithets apply to the two early concertante works that Abbado and his handpicked Orchestra Mozart give us here. The performances seem to have been recorded during a tour (along with others in the same Mozart series): two venues are given for the Sinfonia Concertante, although whether the recordings are live is unclear. It doesn’t matter; the playing is exemplary and there is no discernible audience noise. Notable contributions are made by all the soloists. In the Sinfonia Concertante I was most taken with the clarinet of Alessandro Carbonare and the oboe of Lucas Macías Navarro, both musicians characterful and wonderfully accurate. In the Concerto for Flute and Harp the two soloists play as one, and flautist Jacques Zoon’s silvery tone is beautifully caught in the airy acoustic of the Haydn Auditorium in Bolzano. It is a tone we know well: Zoon was first flute of the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Chailly, the Berlin Philharmonic under Abbado, then the Boston Symphony. Abbado sets perfect tempos. He does…

April 12, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: SERAPH (trumpet: Alison Balsom; BBC Scottish SO/Renes)

Recent years have seen a renaissance of interest in the solo trumpet with a good handful of players reaching out beyond the Haydn and Hummel to explore more challenging contemporary repertoire. Philippe Shartz ensured a limited market for his brave foray by including Birtwistle’s demanding Endless Parade on his excellent Chandos album, but here Alison Balsom plays a safer hand with equal success in a program of edgy yet approachable “modern” works. The appetiser and title work is James MacMillan’s Seraph, a piece dedicated to Balsom, which wittily misquotes the opening of the Haydn concerto before taking us on an involving neo-classical journey. The main course, however, is a pair of tangy, postwar works from either side of the iron curtain. The Arutiunian concerto with its attractive Armenian inflections has had several outings on CD and here proves as engaging as ever. The discovery for me was the 15-minute rhapsody by the German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Like Tippett in A Child Of Our Time, Zimmermann uses a spiritual, in this case Nobody Knows De Trouble I See as a metaphor for the need for racial understanding. It’s a beautiful work, as finely calculated as a Hopper painting and like…

April 12, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: RACHMANINOV: Romances (Dmitri Hvorostovsky)

Hot on the heels of his Pushkin Romances and Tchaikovsky Romances, both released on the Delos label, Dmitri Hvorostovsky makes his Ondine début by continuing the series, this time with a recital of Rachmaninov. His muscular baritone is broodingly at ease in these songs, which deal predominantly with themes of bitterness, regret and ill-fated love, all of it couched in rich and picturesque verse. Here and there, one might wish for a lighter touch or a silkier tone – Hvorostovsky’s singing is more forceful than beautiful, but his musicality is rock solid, and his dramatic sense as compelling on disc as it is on stage. Indeed, his delivery is so robust, and his voice so sonorous, that many of the songs seem to morph into miniature arias. Such an approach might be the undoing of German or French art songs, but Rachmaninov’s romances, whose poetry and illustrative piano parts (deftly dispatched here by Hvorostovsky’s frequent recital partner Ivari Ilja) are already quite operatic in scope, seem almost to demand it. The desperate agony of It is time!, the desolation of Yesterday We Met, and the pleas of Oh no, I beg you, do not leave! are all brought to compelling…

April 12, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART: Piano Concertos Nos 19, 23 (Helene Grimaud)

Hélène Grimaud has provided a thoughtful program for this, her first ever Mozart recording. The two concertos, both in sunny major keys, are not among the most often recorded of the composer’s output, and there is a substantial addition in the form of a concert aria, originally from Idomeneo, for soprano and orchestra with piano obbligato. The recording is full-blooded, not unlike Grimaud’s playing. This is not the gentle, caressing Mozart of Maria João Pires. Grimaud finds both strength and depth in the Adagio movement of the A Major Concerto (No 23, K488), taken slower than usual, and a bubbling vivacity in the work’s Allegro assai finale. Similarly fine pianism characterises the F Major Concerto (No 19, K459), where she conveys the carefree nature of one of Mozart’s brightest and breeziest works. Erdmann sings the concert aria with poise, understanding and spot on intonation. In a live context she may have a small voice, but it records beautifully. Again Grimaud’s piano is an asset. The downside of this disc lies in the fact that these are live concert recordings. In big dramatic works the presence of an audience can galvanise a performer, but this is not so necessary in Mozart….

April 12, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: DEBUSSY: Fantaisie for piano and orchestra; Rhapsodies (Thibaudet, Orchestre de Lyon/Markl)

Märkl’s Debussy series on the Naxos label, of which this is Volume 7, has enjoyed a consistent run of hits with very few misses. His Debussy is robust, an approach emphasised by the Naxos engineers’ close recording balance. This disc brings together the composer’s four concertante pieces with excellent soloists, at least two of whom have international reputations. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet is familiar to Australian audiences for his fluent and crisp renditions of French music, particularly Saint-Saëns and Ravel. He proves as stylish as ever in Debussy’s early Fantaisie, composed in 1889-90 (though the composer tinkered with it later on). The work is less a piano concerto than a “Nights in the Gardens of France”. Thibaudet and Märkl find a touching, inward quality in the slow movement, marked Lento e molto espressivo, and plenty of light-fingered brio in the finale. Their sensitivity is compromised to some extent by the recording balance; the piano sounds gigantic. The equally sensitive Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on Chandos is more realistically recorded. The remainder of the program is even better. Meyer’s mellow clarinet and Doisy’s liquid saxophone bring out the light and shade in their short rhapsodies. This is the most mysterious performance of the Saxophone…

March 29, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: Paul McCartney: Kisses on the Bottom

Given that Paul McCartney is listed in the Guinness World Records book, that ur-text of veracity, as “the most successful composer of all time”, it’s no surprise his talents as a performer have been somewhat overlooked. This collection of jazz standards and showtunes showcases McCartney as a singer who, while not possessed of the most opulent timbre, has a sweet voice and a knack for making lyrics ring true, especially when it comes to lurve. But the gazillion-dollar question still looms: why is the most successful composer of all time singing covers? OK, there are two originals on this disc, but neither My Valentine (guest harmonica from Stevie Wonder) nor Only Our Hearts (Eric Clapton on guitar) quite stand up to the gems of the American songbook on the disc. Normally you wouldn’t expect them to – but this is the man who wrote Eleanor Rigby. As a singer, McCartney is most convincing on the songs made famous by Fats Waller. The title Kisses on the Bottom comes from I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter), and the album also includes It’s Only a Paper Moon and My Very Good Friend the Milkman. Diana Krall and her band…

March 29, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: BRIAN: Gothic Symphony (Massed choirs, soloists, BBC NO Wales and Concert Orch/Brabbins)

Charles ll wrote of his niece Anne’s (later Queen Anne) husband, Prince George of Denmark, “I’ve tried him drunk and I’ve tried him sober and there’s nothing in him”. Well, I’ve tried Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony stone cold sober and after a couple of not-so-wee drams and I still can’t get a handle on it. This sprawling, amorphous behemoth has long been a cult work even among people who’ve never heard it (just about everybody). Attempting to do this work justice in a normal review is a bit like trying to inscribe The Bible on the head of a pin. The first three purely orchestral movements – supposedly connected to the Faust legend – are quite impressive in a guess-the-composer way, with their exciting thrust, especially the manic xylophone solo (rather like the demented organ solo at the end of Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass) although I was never aware of the Guinness World Record-breaking statistics of the orchestral forces involved. There’s none of the sense of heft as there is in, say, Mahler’s Eighth. It’s in the second section – what must be the largest, longest setting of the Te Deum in existence – that things start to unravel. The choral…

March 29, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH: Cantatas, BWV82 “Ich habe genung” (Andreas Scholl)

Andreas Scholl has come a long way since singing Bach as a boy chorister with his local church. The experience instilled in him a deep affinity for this repertoire, as evidenced by several fine discs for Harmonia Mundi. For Decca, the German countertenor has released an album featuring two of the most famous solo cantatas, each showcasing the sonorous, sinewy strength of his tone, particularly when it is focused on long, sombre lines. With assured diction he brings out the meaning of the text, most persuasively the haunting catharsis that comes with a wish for death in BWV82.  Kammerorchester Basel’s tempo in Ich habe genug, intended to play to Scholl’s strengths, crawls along at the same pace as Janet Baker’s classic if somewhat old-fashioned reading on EMI. Scholl is all subtlety and poise, using minimal vibrato and eschewing the histrionics that have dogged the aria elsewhere, but his efforts to convey the words compromise the fluidity of the sublime melody. The final movement Ich Freue Mich auf Meinen Tod, which usually hastens towards the desired release of death, here drags with little tonal or dynamic variation. Scholl finds his way back to the freer approach of his previous Bach album in…

March 20, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: MESSIAEN: Quartet for the End of Time; Zemlinsky: Trio (Ensemble Liaison; Wilma Smith)

Composed and premiered in a concentration camp in the winter of 1941, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is one of the most terrifying and profound musical expressions of the Catholic faith to emerge out of the horrors of 20th-century warfare. And yet it also contains some of the most sensual music ever written. It is a rare group that can move between those extremes and master the score’s extreme virtuosity, but Ensemble Liaison passes with flying colours. The trio plus Wilma Smith on violin are impressive individually, particularly clarinetist David Griffiths in his Herculean solo with its feats of breath control. But they play as one when it counts the most: the extended unison movement Dance de la Fureur, a fierce evocation of the seven trumpets of the apocalypse. This section is impressively faster than my go-to recording on DG with Daniel Barenboim, maintaining almost telepathic focus between the four players, but what they gain in speed they lose in gravitas. Messiaen’s ethereal musical realm – beyond time as we know it – is not too daunting for these artists, who seem comfortable drawing out its rhythmic complexity and elasticity, playing with sinuous fluidity or taut precision as…

March 13, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: ELGAR: The Dream of Gerontius; Cello Concerto (Soloists; Sydney Symphony/Ashkenazy)

A surprising, if welcome, entry into the ABC’s Classic 100 20th Century was this huge choral monument. Gerontius is never an easy work to bring off. Some conductors and performers treat it like a church service, instead of the great music drama that it is. The work drips with Catholic piety and needs special care. Vladimir Ashkenazy has an unusual affinity for Elgar and he plays this oratorio with passion and conviction. The hushed choral invocation towards the end of Part 1 is exquisitely handled. At this point the overly reverberant recording, which takes the edge off the music elsewhere, is perfect. Lilli Paasikivi’s Angel is beautiful; more effective on the CD than I remember her in the concert hall. Mark Tucker’s impassioned Gerontius is marred by strain at the top of his range. More than 20 versions are currently available on disc. Although the SSO plays superbly, the remarkable 1964 recording with Barbirolli and the Philharmonia is the one to beat: soloists Richard Lewis and Janet Baker are beyond compare and the closer-miked recording is illuminating. Joining Gerontius on Sydney Symphony’s 2-CD set is the work that came in at number one on the ABC’s 100 list, also in a recording drawn…

March 13, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: Concerto of the Greater Sea (Tawadros; Tognetti; Australian Chamber Orchestra)

Last year, on tour with the ACO’s surfing-themed program The Glide, Joseph Tawadros vowed he wouldn’t be caught dead on a board. Richard Tognetti may not have taught him to duck dive, but it’s clear the mystery of the sea exerts its thrall over Australia’s young oud virtuoso. On this his fifth album, Tawadros draws on Khalil Gibran’s description of the human spirit as “a boundless drop to a boundless ocean” for his Concerto of the Greater Sea. The six movements of the suite for oud, viola, piano and percussion are interspersed with shorter pieces recorded with the ACO’s full complement of strings back in 2006. These are as fresh as if they had been made yesterday, fitting comfortably with the concerto and documenting the ease of stylistic integration that has remained constant through years of collaboration. Tawadros’s compositions develop from simple chord progressions that give him space to showcase his impressive finger work and explore the tangy sonorities of his instrument in soulful musings, often doubled in taut unison by Tognetti or violist Christopher Moore. The effect is breathtaking, the timbres exquisitely blended, but where it gets interesting is when the soloists are more independent, as in the lyrical…