April 27, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: STRAVINSKY Diversions (violin: Ray Chen, piano: Timothy Young)

Ray Chen’s Sony Classical debut, Virtuoso, captures the unmistakable spark of brilliance in the 22-year-old’s command of showpieces. This Melba release, meanwhile, presents the artist in a more subtle test of interpretive prowess. Of the “diversions” gathered here – Stravinsky’s most charming chamber vignettes – all but the Duo concertante are arrangements from his stage works, including Petrushka and Pulcinella. Chen adopts a stately air for the introduction to Suite after Pergolesi, energising the Tarantella without sacrificing the balletic lightness of neo-classical Stravinsky. Timothy Young’s accompaniment is sensitively varied right from the delicate opening Divertimento, guiding the mercurial violin through repeated figurations of mounting intensity towards a punchy climax. It may seem an unfair comparison for a rising star, but my preference in this repertoire lies with Anthony Marwood and Thomas Adès. It is the older violinist who delivers more youthful bounce and bite, with Adès’s playing full of thrills. But Chen emerges triumphant in pathos: the lyrical poise of the Serenata, and the darkly expressive, idiomatic portamenti in Chanson russe.

April 27, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Tempest (Helen Mirren, Russell Brand, Ben Wishaw)

Shakespeare’s final play has inspired several films, including the science-fiction Forbidden Planet, Paul Mazursky’s contemporary Tempest, and versions by Peter Greenaway (Prospero’s Books) and Derek Jarman. Now comes a new version from Amercian director Julie Taymor, known for her visually supercharged productions The Lion King on stage and, on film, Titus Andronicus and the Beatles-inspired musical Across the Universe.  You could be forgiven for anticipating a visually rich experience. After all this is a play set on an exotic island filled with strangeness and magic. It’s disappointing then to see how bleak Taymor’s vision so often looks, and feels. Breaking cleanly away from her trademark extravagance, Taymor conjures up an island that’s nothing but craggy rocks and wind-swept desert. Balancing up the ledger are some imaginative visual effects and bold casting decisions. The protagonist becomes Prospera, played splendidly by Helen Mirren. Russell Brand makes a lively Trinculo in the comic sub-plot, and the casting of African-born Djimon Hounsou as Caliban keys into interpretations of the play as an allegory of colonialism. But in the end the film is rarely transporting; it’s something that feels good for you rather than a poetic marvel to sweep you away.  

April 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RACHMANINOV Symphony No 2; LIADOV The Enchanted Lake (National Academy of St Cecilia/Pappano)

Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2 in E minor was written in 1906-7, after the composer had recovered from a bout of depression triggered by the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony. While he wrote significant works in between, the Second Symphony marks his full maturity as a master of the orchestra. This is not only the Rachmaninov of soaring, sequential string melodies but also of bouncing scherzos and piquant woodwinds. In particular, the slow movement requires a truly sensitive clarinettist. There have been several magnificent recordings of this symphony, starting with André Previn’s 1973 version (EMI). Previn’s approach was pliable and “capital R” Romantic. Pletnev (DG) was swift and articulate. Jansons (EMI) combined the best of both worlds, and Pappano does the same in this new live recording. As a leading opera conductor, Pappano knows precisely when to broaden the tempo, when to press forward, and how to shape a long lyrical phrase. The St Cecilia players sound tight as a drum – accompanying figures are never opaque: unsuspected orchestral colours leap out at you. Liadov’s Enchanted Lake is beautifully realised too. The mysterious soft opening trills had me holding my breath. No wonder Liadov was Diaghilev’s first choice to compose The Firebird! The…

April 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Echoes of Time: Shostakovich • Pärt • Rachmaninov (violin: Lisa Batiashvili; Bavarian Radio SO/Salonen)

Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili has joined the ranks of Znaider, Ehnes, Hahn, Benedetti et al with this magnificent rendition of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto – now virtually a calling card for every violin wizard. While any of David Oistrakh’s various versions of this work remain sans pareil (at least in interpretative terms) she’s still up against formidable competition. The kaleidoscopic combination of moods – ranging from the dark solemnity and emotional bleakness of the introduction to the exquisitely haunted lyricism of the passacaglia movement, to the manic, sardonic scherzo and final burlesque – clearly hold no terrors for her and her tempi, seemingly slower than usual, enhance the reading. Throughout, her playing radiates profound emotion. This is musicianship of a very high order. The other music on the CD is Giya Kancheli’s V and V for violin and taped voice with string orchestra, Shostakovich’s Lyrical Waltz from The Seven Dolls Suite arranged by her father, Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (“Mirror in the Mirror”) and Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, all played with equally ravishing beauty (the pianist in the Pärt and Rachmaninov is Hélène Grimaud, no less). Alas, the liner notes don’t contain a word about the Pärt or Kancheli works, neither of which is exactly a well-ploughed furrow. The…

April 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Exquisite Corpse of Beethoven: Johannes Luebbers Dectet

Led by Perth-based composer and arranger Johannes Luebbers, this dectet successfully straddles the jazz-classical divide. The album touches other forms such as rock and pop: Aaron Malone provides a soulful vocal cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, accompanied by nimble guitarist Simon Jeans.  The title track is layer upon layer of richly bladed sectional coatings underneath exciting solos by altoist Ben Collins and pianist Chris Foster, bookended by a jaunty dialogue between piano, drums and bass. Just Ripe is a lavish theme given a post-modern bent featuring trumpeter Callum G’Froerer. Everything for Brod increases in lyrical intensity with an oboe intro from Steph Nicholls but soon swells in orchestral energy before retreating to woodwind and piano sobriety – only to explode once again, exemplifying the textural and dramatic qualities of Luebbers’ pen.

April 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Creole Choir of Cuba: Tande-La

Wow. Just when you thought you knew all about Cuban music, along comes this steaming hot release to prove you wrong. If the incredibly spirited music of the Creole Choir is distinctly different from the Cuban dance music of the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, it’s for a good reason. Its ten members are descended from Haitians who were brought to Cuba as slaves in the 18th century.  Those slaves’ ancestry accounts for the heavy African sound in both their drumming – the only instrumental accompaniment – and striking vocal melodies. If you also think you hear French and Spanish inflections in the vocals, it’s because the choir sing in Creole, a pot pourri of European, Caribbean and African tongues. These are extraordinarily fiery performances – enough to light up the sky on the darkest of days.

April 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Setimo Fado (Joana Amendoeira)

Fans of Fado might like to investigate Joana Amendoeira’s new disc Setimo Fado. As indicated, this is her seventh disc, but it’s only her second album to be released here. Fado’s nostalgic longings for love, life and distant shores are understood universally – across language and culture. In 17 short songs, with their traditional accompaniment of Portuguese guitar, bass and acoustic guitar (and touches of piano, accordion and cello), Joana Amendoeira sings directly from her heart.

April 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: LIMINAL (double bass: Nick Tsiavos, percussion: Eugene Ughetti)

This is an outstanding new Australian release, a beautiful and moving disc. Liminal is somewhat reminiscent of the “holy minimalism” of Górecki and Tavener, recorded with clean resonance. Beneath the liquid surface, however, lies an undercurrent of just-contained fire.  Nick Tsiavos is a very active Melbourne double bassist and composer; he’s one of those quiet achievers whose work you may have heard without knowing it. His music is a fusion of ancient Byzantine chant, European jazz, minimalism and the free-form exuberance of ’70s rock. The eight pieces here draw together two strands of his work. Earlier discs like Transference, recorded late at night in a giant incinerator, comprise rich yet understated solo improvisations. By contrast, his quintet Jouissance reinterprets medieval and renaissance music within a contemporary frame.  The opening track here, Axion estin, sets the tone – resonant bells and long-stretched bass notes support Deborah Kayser’s ethereal voice. The Shaman Dances are more exuberant and catchy. The stylistic range of these performers is extraordinary and the production is sublime.

April 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HINDEMITH Music for Viola and Orchestra (viola: Lawrence Power, BBC SO/Atherton)

Despite the received wisdom that his music is dry and academic, much of the material is energetic and convivial – even witty. The viola was his instrument and he composed seven sonatas for it, in addition to these pieces. The two neo-classical works, Konzertmusik Op 48 and Kammermusik No 5, are 20th-century takes on Handel’s Concerti Grossi and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti respectively and feature masterful orchestration – especially in the superlative woodwind writing and bustling outer movements – while affording ample scope for the viola’s exquisitely soulful qualities. His only fully fledged concerto for the viola was Der Schwanendreher (“The Swan Turner”). This is based on old German folksongs, played by an iterant fiddler (the viola soloist), in an attempt to evoke the spirit of a more innocent age; understandable, considering Germany’s increasingly bleak political climate (Hindemith was resolutely anti-Nazi). This is the jewel in Hindemith’s crown; anyone who finds his music sterile should listen to the duet between viola  and harp and woodwind chorale in the introduction to the beautiful slow movement. The remaining work, Trauermusik (“Music for Mourning”) has a connection with Schwanandreher: when Hindemith was in London for the UK premiere, King George V died. Hindemith composed Trauermusik in…

April 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEAUTIES & BEASTS Music for piano four hands (Igor Machlak, Olga Kharitonova)

I was somewhat baffled by this CD. It’s clearly a promotional tool for Stuart & Sons Pianos on the new Leatham Music label, produced by Gregory Lewis and engineered by Trevor Doddridge in All Saints Anglican Church, Albury. Fair enough, but the title, Beauties and Beasts, becomes rather confusing. The inclusion of the four-handed arrangement of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite is fine, especially since one movement is called Beauty and the Beast. The next piece, Part 1 of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, is understandable, although the abrupt, unresolved ending makes it more like a “bleeding chunk”. I was also reminded of Stravinsky’s remark that Karajan’s first interpretation of his Rite of Spring was a “pet savage, not a real one!” The second two works on the CD hardly reinforce the theme: Schubert’s Waltzes, Op 18A, radiate Biedemeier charm and Gemütlichkeit but are hardly in the same ethereal world as Ravel’s Mother Goose and I can’t for the life of me see anything primitive, let alone bestial, in the selection of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, which complete the disc. Despite the rather jolly, not to say robust, appearance of the pianists, the playing is sensitive and imaginative, especially in the Ravel and…

April 8, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Never Let Me Go (Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Mark Romenek)

Based on a novel by Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is an intelligent science fiction story that steadfastly refuses to obey genre rules and instead plays out as the high-toned literary adaptation it is. The film is set in an alternate version of England during the 1970s through to the 1990s, a country in which most major diseases have been banished via a social mechanism that only gradually becomes clear. Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley play pupils at a very strict but undeniably strange boarding school. It takes a while to figure out the truth of their situation but discover it they eventually do. The casting is first-rate (Charlotte Rampling plays the girls’ strict headmistress) and the scenario powerful and thought-provoking. At first the film’s subtlety works in its favour by lending it an enigmatic creepiness. In the longer term, however, it tends to stifle the drama. Mark Romenek’s cautious direction is one cause, but you can also blame characters who too often surrender to their preordained fates – they have little to do dramatically other than act out a conventional lovers’ triangle (Andrew Garfield plays the linchpin). Only when the girls team up does the…

April 6, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MENDELSSOHN Symphony No 2 Lobgesang “Hymn of Praise” (Ruth Ziesak, Mojca Erdmann, Christian Elsner, MDR Choir and SO/Markl

This distinguished performance of a much maligned work, more a symphonic cantata than a real symphony, will no doubt form another step in its rehabilitation, although it’s doubtful that Lobgesang “Hymn of Praise” will ever occupy the same exalted rank as the Scottish or Italian Symphonies. It was composed in 1840 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of printing with moveable type – it’s always intrigued me that the powers that be apparently saw fit to celebrate in religious terms the invention of what, in its time, must have caused as great an explosion of knowledge and information as the Internet and Google have done in ours. With at least one Anglican clergyman among my own ancestors, I’ve no wish to denigrate the Protestant religion, which was in itself a major liberating force in Western Europe, but with Mendelssohn everything often ends up sounding Lutheran. That said, this is an absolute cracker, as a performance, recording and interpretation. Märkl invests the opening movement with admirable vigour, as if determined to sweep away portentousness; the Adagio is also purged of etiolated Victorian piety (just!) The unusual combination of singers (two sopranos and a tenor) is also impressive: Ruth Ziesak and Mojca Erdmann…

April 5, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: DAUGHERTY Route 66, Ghost Ranch, Sunset Strip, Time Machine (Bournemouth SO/Alsop)

Reading Daugherty’s liner notes to this collection of works for orchestra, it’s clear that what inspires his music is unpredictable and mostly extramusical. Route 66 is a big, boisterous Cadillac of a piece, intended to convey the experience of driving from Illinois to California. In only seven busy, energetic minutes, Daugherty’s writing bombards your ears with the full dynamic and textural ranges of the very capable Bournemouth Symphony. Sunset Strip follows a similar thematic vein (as the title suggests), although it is, ironically, a longer journey (composed in three movements) allowing for moments of ear-relieving sparsity. Slightly less in-your-face than the asphalt-alluding works is Ghost Ranch, inspired by the life and paintings of American artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Each contrasting movement attempts to paint a different image, each of which is described in the liner notes. I couldn’t glean much of a relationship between sound and text, but the music is harmonically varied and eminently easy on the ear – so who cares? Time Machine calls for three conductors (Alsop is joined by Mei-Ann Chen and Laura Jackson) and an orchestra split into three parts. It’s an interesting concept – but one wasted on CD. Even so, the writing is dramatic and…

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