March 13, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: Songs of War (Simon Keenlyside; Malcolm Martineau)

Longing, melancholy and visceral pain – but also a stark beauty – pervade this new recital from Simon Keenlyside, a collection of mostly English songs from the early decades of the 20th century, when the shadows of war loomed large. Rollicking tales of battle and militant flag-waving are conspicuous by their absence; Keenlyside focuses instead on the personal side of war, the physical and emotional toll taken on soldiers and on those left behind. At the centre of the recital are Butterworth’s settings of poems from A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, and it’s hard to imagine these songs in better hands. Keenlyside’s singing explodes with raw emotion. Happy moments are as ardently captured as the deepest sadness or sharpest blow, and his exceptional diction and dynamic control are utterly in tune with Housman’s touching poetry. Ned Rorem’s graphic An Incident and Kurt Weill’s harrowing Beat! Beat! Drums! and Dirge for Two Veterans (all settings of Walt Whitman poems) are a bracing and at times brutal contrast but just as masterful in their execution. At 52, keenlyside is blessed with a voice that combines youthful brightness with dark mahogany, allowing him to declaim and whisper with equal impact, and to…

March 13, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: IVES: Violin Sonatas Nos 1-4 (Hilary Hahn; Valentina Lisitsa)

Only in recent years has Charles Ives been acknowledged as a founding father of American classical music, but there can be no mistaking the true grit in his four violin sonatas, all composed before 1920.  Youthful brio, blistering technique and a fierce musical intellect make Hilary Hahn the ideal interpreter of her countryman’s work. She and Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa have been exploring the sonatas together for a few years and the synergy they have achieved is remarkable, considering the  two parts are often composed to sound entirely disjointed from one another. It’s clear from the duo’s mercurial rhythmic interplay just how much fun they’re having with this music. Hahn’s sweet-toned violin is closely-miked for a dry, honest sound that matches the directness of Ives’s borrowings from hymns, ragtime and spirituals. North Carolina-based Lisitsa calls these tuneful quotations “American as apple pie”, and that’s the spirit in which she attacks buoyant, punchy passages. But the players are just as expressive in gentle moments of reflection, easing into Debussyesque lyricism for the Autumn movement of Sonata No 2. Highlights: the wide-eyed adventure of the Sonata No 4 Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting, its final movement ending abruptly with the charm…

February 29, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: ARCADIA LOST: Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending; Flos Campi; On Wenlock Edge; Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem Michael Dauth v; Roger Benedict va; Steve Davislim t; Benjamin Martin p; Hamer Quartet;

Here is a compendium of four British rhapsodies for lost worlds. Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending is a sublime expression of pure joy, as violin soars against orchestra to weave its line of melody against the sky. Michael Dauth and the SSO combine with lyrical delicacy in a work that demands surrender to its idyllic beauty. More attention is needed for the song cycle On Wenlock Edge, Vaughan Williams’s settings of A E Housman taken from A Shropshire Lad  – rural poems of love and grief as soldiers went to die on foreign soil. Tenor Steve Davislim with Benjamin Martin on piano and the Hamer Quartet find quiet beauty in the sadness of these poems, and the fine audio experience provided by the SACD format makes for a profoundly moving experience. Vaughan Williams’s work for viola, chorus and orchestra Flos Campi is performed perhaps better than it deserves to be. The work always sounds to me like the soundtrack to a portentous 1950s sci-fi movie.  Amid these pieces is a solitary symphonic work by Benjamin Britten, his Sinfonia da Requiem, a supposedly celebratory piece commissioned by the Japanese Government shortly before that country entered into the Second World War. It…

February 29, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: LOS PARAJOS PERDIDOS (L’Arpeggiata/Christina Pluhar)

For Los párajos perdidos: the South American Project, lutenist, harpist and director of early music band L’Arpeggiata Pluhar takes as her starting point two ideas: that unlike their modern European equivalents, Latin American plucked instruments differ little from their common Baroque ancestors; and that South American dances and songs still exhibit rhythmic and harmonic structures that would have been recognisable to a Baroque musician.  Pluhar thus combines a period ensemble of lutes, harps, guitars, cornett, double bass and percussion with a smaller group comprising instruments still played in Latin America such as the cuatro, charango, arpa llanera and maracas. Her vocalists include classical singers Philippe Jaroussky, Luciana Mancini and Raquel Andueza, as well as Italian folk singer and researcher Lucilla Galeazzi and the extraordinary singer and ballet dancer Vincenzo Capezzuto.  Despite their different performing traditions, all show the same remarkable ability to really loosen up and go with the often sensual, sometimes totally wild rhythms in these traditional and contemporary zambas, golpes, polcas, joropos and boleros from Latin America.  Yes, there’s very little “early music” as such – though there is an arrangement of Soler’s famous Fandago that will really knock your socks off. What you do get is some…

February 29, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: BERLIOZ: Grande Messe des Morts (Gabrieli Consort and Players; Wrocław PO and Choir/McCreesh)

The “sonic spectacular” is back, if Paul McCreesh has his way. The veteran of so many wonderful early music extravaganzas has now parted amicably with Deutsche Grammophon after a 15-year relationship. The next phase of his artistic endeavour will see him set his own artistic agenda, underpinned by his fascination with large-scale works and historically informed performance values. The first fruits of this new phase are truly mindblowing. In 2010 McCreesh assembled some 400 players and singers in Wrocław, Poland to record the Berlioz Requiem. Meticulously following the composer’s directions which call for, amongst other things, a chorus of at least 200, 16 timpani, 18 double basses and four additional brass groups, McCreesh has produced a recording of jaw-dropping power and sublime beauty. While the thunderous, apocalyptic vision of the Tuba mirum is absolutely awe-inspiring, much of the work is more intimate in scope, and it is in these sections that we see the composer’s mastery of musical colour. Robert Murray might not be the most distinguished tenor to have sung the solo in the Sanctus, but at least he respects its rapt, devotional character. Mary Magdalene Church, Wrocław provides an excellent venue for this work, imparting atmospheric resonance that…

February 23, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUBERT: Piano Sonatas, Impromptus (Paul Lewis)

Comprising both smaller-scale works as well as three sonatas, this generous collection shows the versatility and mastery of Paul Lewis in Schubert’s piano music. While the Impromptus D899 are among Schubert’s best-known instrumental works, Lewis allows us to hear them as if for the first time. Each is carefully shaped and interesting details are pointed out along the way, without ever losing sense of the melodic and dramatic arc of the whole. Full of references to Schubert’s song style, the late, lesser-known Klavierstücke D946 are ultimately valedictory in tone and Lewis gives them a marvelous rendition. Less easy for some to enjoy are the sonatas, with their emphasis on thematic development at the expense of structure. Lewis’s strong characterisation of successive ideas together with an uncanny sense of musical perspective allows him to guide the listener convincingly through Schubert’s musical arguments. In particular we can delight in the variety of moods Lewis creates in the scherzo of the D-Major Sonata D850 and the laconic humour he brings to its finale. By contrast, the opening of the G-Major Sonata D894 is invested with an admirable quiet devotion. The unfinished sonata Reliquie D840 seems a strange work on first acquaintance, but in…

February 23, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: RICHARD GALLIANO: Nino Rota

Following his stellar live album of Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf tunes, French-born master accordionist Richard Galliano turns to his Italian roots in a tribute to Nino Rota, marking the great film composer’s centenary in 2011. Captivated by these sumptuous scores ever since he saw La Strada at his local cinema in Nice as a child, Galliano brings the timeless creations of Fellini and Francis Ford Coppola vividly to life in his own jazz-tinged arrangements for quintet.  With idiomatic playing from the band, especially Dave Douglas on trumpet, Rota’s melancholic themes lose none of their original romance and mystique, from The Godfather waltz (played on trombone, surprisingly, by Galliano) to the seductive opening of Amarcord. There are more upbeat and varied offerings: the soloist and his La Strada Quartet glide effortlessly from circus music to lounge, dirge to Latin dance – sometimes, dizzyingly, all in the one track – with a selection of themes and medleys cleverly interwoven to revisit motifs as a composer might do in a single film score.  Aside from the crisp ensemble work, Galliano’s instrument and its rich sound palette are most engaging when his stylish, virtuosic improvisations are allowed to soar (The Godfather love song…

February 23, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: John Williams: The Adventures of Tintin (Soundtrack)

The release of any new film score by John Williams is an event. Beginning with the grand Mahler-esque melodies of Indiana Jones and Superman, the American composer has created the most recognisable film music of all time. The Williams of Tintin, however, is less like Mahler and more like the dive bar on Tattoine from Star Wars – if it had been a French colony. The theme of Tintin the character is heavily swing-infused, with a walking double bass and a synthesised harpsichord (like something out of Mario Brothers) that may disappoint some listeners. The piano-driven Snowy’s theme is more fun, and sounds weirdly like one of Rachmaninov’s more chipper Paganini Variations.  There is a chromatic, circus-like quality to all the proceedings here, with a clarinet and accordion introducing bungling detectives Thomson and Thompson. A moment of grandeur is introduced by Renée Fleming (as Mme Castelfiore) singing Ah, jeux vivre, with the final high C autotuned up to an F (to the sound of breaking glass). Williams’s ensuing variations on the melody of the aria are a witty touch. The Adventures of Tintin is perhaps not a piece of the stature of, say, Saving Private Ryan – a soundtrack that…

February 13, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: The Four Elements (Nigel Kennedy)

Whatever you do when you listen to Nigel Kennedy’s The Four Elements, don’t expect anything like The Four Seasons… The British violinist is known, firstly, for his visceral performances of Vivaldi’s four most famous concertos and, secondly, for his rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, symbolised by his very non-classical hairdo. Kennedy’s own take on “The Four Somethings” idea melds these two facets of his personality. Writing for instruments more commonly encountered in pop or rock, Kennedy has composed four pieces entitled Air, Earth, Fire, Water – plus an overture and a finale. It’s just like Vivaldi – but it rocks. At least, that’s the idea. In reality, The Four Elements is a rambling work not quite interesting enough for the classical genre, nor punchy enough to succeed as popular music. Vivaldi fans will be turned off as soon as the electric bass and drums thud into motion in the overture; while the veneer of classical nerdiness will turn off mainstream listeners (despite the trip-hop beats in Air and a rap solo from Kennedy in Earth). The playing is top-notch throughout, and the instrumental writing is quite accomplished – but the flaw of Kennedy’s work is not so much lack of proficiency…

February 13, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL: Streams of Pleasure (Karina Gauvin; Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Il Complesso Barocco/Curtis)

They played enemies in Alan Curtis’s recording of Ariodante, but French-Canadian Baroque specialists Karina Gauvin and Marie-Nicole Lemieux make a happier pair in this collaboration, a selection of arias and duets from Handel’s English oratorios.  Handel ceased composing opera in 1741 and turned his hand instead to sacred vocal music. There’s a transcendent quality to these later works, befitting their pious status, but Handel was a man of the theatre, and never lost his knack for drama. Gauvin and Lemieux are well placed to strike that balance, bringing ravishing beauty and drama to these excerpts.  In duet, Gauvin’s pearly soprano contrasts ecstatically with Lemieux’s billowing contralto: the voices blend gorgeously without being subsumed within one another. Welcome as the dawn of day, a sensual love duet between Solomon and his Queen, is an especial delight. Lemieux can stray towards bluster in a militant role, as in Cyrus’s Destructive war from Belshazzar, but to calmer music – As with rosy steps the morn, for instance – she brings a tremulous and earthy beauty.  Gauvin is even better, singing with luscious tone, silken phrasing and keen emotional instincts. Her solo arias are some of the disc’s finest moments: My father! Ah! Methinks I…

February 13, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: MAHLER arr SCHOENBERG/RIEHN: Song of the Earth (Manchester Camerata/Boyd)

Schoenberg’s admiration for Mahler extended to founding an Association for Private Musical Performances to revive Viennese musical life after WWI. They could rarely afford a full orchestra so relied on chamber music reductions. In the case of The Song of the Earth, Schoenberg completed only most of the first song then delegated Webern to the task, by which time the Association was bankrupt. The real hero is Rainer Riehn, who completed the sketch in the 1980s based on Schoenberg’s orchestration. “Mahler arr Riehn” doesn’t have quite the cachet of “Mahler arr Schoenberg”, so you can imagine the push to overstate the latter’s involvement. Nonetheless, the arrangement is a credit to Riehn and this CD is also a credit to Douglas Boyd and his ensemble and singers. The Song of the Earth in any form represents Mahler’s art at its most distilled and offers a tantalising glimpse – as do the Ninth and Tenth symphonies – into how his music would have developed had he lived longer. Even the full orchestral version has many chamber-like textures and it’s anyone’s guess how these two singers would have fared in the more heavily scored passages (Christa Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich in Klemperer’s reading…

February 13, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: WALTON: Symphonies Nos 1-2, Siesta (BBC Scottish SO/Brabbins)

Walton’s First is one of the most outstanding symphonies of the 20th century, the turbulent energies of which are apparently the result of the composer’s failing relationship with one Imma von Doernberg. The exultant final movement burst out after a fresh encounter with one Alice Wimborne. Whatever the inspiration, it stands with the Elgar symphonies at the peak of English orchestral composition. A pity such passion had not fired the Second Symphony; compare the ravishing slow movement of the First with that of the Second… The latter seems almost an afterthought.  Premiered in 1957, the Second Symphony fell afoul of the “toot, whistle, plunk and boom” school of music that held contemporary classical music to ransom for the following 40 years. We now know better and the symphony can be seen for what it is: an excellent if minor work. It is drier and less moving than the First, stylistically at one with many great 20th-century composers such as William Schuman, Sibelius and Roy Harris. Never at fault is Walton’s brilliant orchestration. These are excellent performances and good value for money. The finest Walton First is still the 1967 recording with the LSO under André Previn on RCA. (Sargent’s better-played…

February 13, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: Rock Symphonies (David Garrett)

David Garrett was a gifted young violinist who performed as soloist with the London Philharmonic at the age of ten. He “crossed over” a few years ago to record a series of song-based albums, and never has that act seemed more like crossing to the dark side. It began with the rather jejune Free (2007), a bouquet of tunes by Morricone, Bernstein and Bizet, but reaches an apotheosis of awful with Rock Symphonies – Garrett joined by an orchestra and heavy metal band.  The violinist wields his bow like a machete, castrating composers of talent from Beethoven (first mvt of Fifth Symphony) to Kurt Cobain (Smells Like Teen Spirit). What makes it especially heinous is that Garrett’s playing isn’t even that refined, despite the Juilliard training. He can “shred” all right, but he doesn’t have the variety of phrasing to make rock music sound natural on the violin; he’s out of tune in Guns and Roses’ November Rain; and his solos seem conscribed to the pentatonic scale. It’s almost like Garrett is the André Rieu of rock – the schmaltz king of metal. Bad taste release of the year.