August 23, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Vivian Wu; Russell Wong; Wayne Wang)

Lifelong female friendship is the subject of this lush weepie, in which a pair of interlinked tales unfold in two timeframes: the 21st-century Shanghai of skyscrapers and business careers; and 19th-century Hunan province, a world of foot-binding and female subjugation.  In the modern frame are Nina (Li Bingbing) and her Korean foster sister Sophia (Gianna Jun) – two laotong or soul sisters, bound together for life even when physically apart. In flashback unfolds the older story in which two equivalent laotong, Snow Flower and Lily, are played by the same actors.  Parallel narratives can be tricky to pull off, but Snow Flower’s director Wayne Wang and co-screenwriter Ronald Bass had already mastered the form in their satisfying 1993 adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club. Here Bass returns, joined by two co-writers, though something has gone awry. Lisa See’s source novel was set entirely in the 19th century. In adding the modern framing story, the writers have added complication without the necessary dramatic clarity or emotional resonance. As a result, while the film is undeniably lovely to look at, it’s somewhat remote. We’re told there’s deep emotion on the screen, but it’s hard to feel it.

August 23, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Beginners (Ewan McGregor; Melanie Laurent; Christopher Plummer; Mike Mills)

In a remarkable case of art imitating life, graphic artist-turned-filmmaker Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) returns to feature films with a personal ode to family, love and identity. Unabashedly autobiographical, Beginners bumbles through the life of lovelorn graphic designer Oliver (Ewan McGregor), whose burgeoning relationship with a delightfully offbeat French actress (Melanie Laurent) forces him to come to grips with his father’s recent death; a passing made more complex by the fact that Hal (Christopher Plummer) waited for his wife of 45 years to die before living his last months as an exuberant gay man.   Expertly criss-crossing three timeframes, Beginners interleaves Oliver’s giddy present with the gorgeous Anna with flashbacks from childhood and Hal’s Indian summer with his boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic). Shot through it all are wry sketches of Oliver’s romantic history, plus a scene-stealing anthropomorphised Jack Russell. This might sound overstuffed and more than a little twee (“quirky” seems to be the go-to epithet), but bolstered by his cast’s masterfully affecting performances, Mills juggles it all with a deftness of touch and tone that results in both a deeply poignant elegy and a heart-fluttering celebration of love in all its messy forms.

August 23, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: WALTON: Belshazzar’s Feast; Symphony No 1 (Peter Coleman-Wright; London SO & Chorus/Davis)

I must confess at the outset that Belshazzar’s Feast had never taken my fancy but if ever a performance were to tip the scales, it would be this one. Sir Colin and his LSO forces are in sizzling form in this truly revolutionary take on the often turgid oratorio form. They capture perfectly the coiled spring tension and the jagged, snarling, jazz-inflected rhythms and whisk us through one scene after another. Walton’s orchestration is stunning: to cite just two of many moments, the way the sounds imitate the description of Babylon’s obscene riches and the creepy instrumental accompaniment to the singer’s (Peter Coleman-Wright in fine form) description of the “writing on the wall”. In what may perhaps be an unlikely coupling, Walton’s First Symphony finds the same forces less impressive. The first movement contains some of the most explosive, searing music ever composed. You can almost smell rubber on tarmac. Walton went from the languid, effete, bright young thing of Façade to an angry young man. The benchmark will always be André Previn’s 1966 RCA recording with the same orchestra. Davis and his LSO just don’t cut it, along with everyone else. There’s nothing specifically wrong with it, it’s that…

August 23, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Gruber: Busking; Violin Concerto No 1 (Hakan Hardenberger; violin: Katarina Andreasson; Swedish CO/Gruber)

Austrian composer H K Gruber visited Australia in 2001 for the Melbourne Metropolis Festival of new music, and as a conductor has championed the music of Brett Dean. This disc of three concertos spans more than 30 years of his composing career, with Busking commissioned by trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger in 2007. In this concertante piece – banjo and accordion serve as continuo instruments but with plenty of soloistic flourishes – Gruber captures the colourful cacophony of street musicians outdoing one another for the attention of passers-by. The Presto opens with a rustic, almost throwaway melody sounded casually in the trumpet’s detached mouthpiece; accordion and banjo chime in and before long the strings have picked up the theme. Like any good tune, once heard fleetingly it will be hummed incessantly. What sets this one apart is Hardenberger’s fierce virtuosity, and the meticulously constructed textures brought vividly to life by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. By the second movement it’s grown dark but the musos play on, with seedy urban noir on the breath of languorous jazz trumpet; the third movement has a quasi-improvisational quality. If only Hardenberger and company would take a leaf out of Joshua Bell’s book and let loose on the…

August 23, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: LISZT: Sonata in B Minor; Piano Works (Khatia Buniatishvili)

The works in this program were composed after Liszt abandoned the life of a touring virtuoso and settled in Weimar. There, in Goethe’s city, he composed his Faust Symphony, and a Faustian program has sometimes been attributed to his Piano Sonata. The 23-year-old Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili would agree. In her liner notes she finds parallels with Faust throughout the program. Yet while her writings suggest that all you need to master this music is a metaphysical context, she neglects to mention the physical side (probably through modesty). Buniatishvili’s technical prowess enables her to combine energy with precision at a level comparable to Argerich – indeed this is the most exciting debut performance of the Liszt Sonata since Argerich recorded it in 1960. Her intellectual rigour also allows her to plot the mercurial changes of pace, weight and speed that are built into its structure. Her allegros are imbued with Faustian recklessness. Her Liebestraum radiates a purity associated with Marguerite, while her Mephisto Waltz has power but also a light touch that can only be labelled Mephistophelian. She has two attributes necessary for a Lisztian: she never bangs the piano in double fortes, and she makes everything sound if not…

August 23, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BRAHMS: Violin Sonatas (Jack Liebeck; Katya Apekisheva)

Listening to this disc, it’s clear why the three Brahms violin sonatas are so beloved by violinists: they comprise some of the most beautiful writing committed to manuscript for the instrument. So persuasive is this account by young British violinist Jack Liebeck that it’s hard to tell who is gaining the fullest pleasure – the performer or listener. Which is of course as it should be. The First Sonata was penned in 1879 when the composer was in his mid-40s. He then waited seven years before composing the final two. All three works are brimming with melodic and rhythmic riches – while the first two sonatas spill over with sun-suffused beauty, the third has noticeably more complex drama and emotion at its base. This does not mean that the first two do not carry profound passages; the First Sonata’s Adagio for instance is one of the most intense movements in Romantic musical literature. It is the favourite of many violinists, and it’s interesting to note that in fact this may have been Brahms’s least favourite. “Play it once”, he told a friend. “More it does not deserve…” These works would serve as a perfect introduction to Brahms’s chamber music. They belie the fact that…

August 17, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Metropolis: Original motion picture score (Berlin Radio Orchestra/Strobel)

It is easily forgotten that silent movies were never silent. In classier cinemas one usually found an orchestra of indeterminate size scrabbling furiously in pursuit of the villain, or sympathetically setting the mood for a love scene. Even in smaller establishments there would be at least a pianist banging away.  For the most significant films, a full score would be commissioned, and a few of these rarities were so good that they have survived to the present day. Gottfried Huppertz’s score for Metropolis, written in 1927 to accompany the dazzling film by Fritz Lang, is one such example. The useful notes that accompany the CD give us a story of the scrupulous way in which Huppertz approached his job, including visits to the set during filming. Only with the discovery of the missing 20 minutes of footage in 2008 has the fully restored film and its score been rehabilitated.  Interest in the film was rekindled in 1983 when Giorgio Moroder released a partial restoration with a rock score he himself had composed with a little help from his friends, including Freddie Mercury of Queen. Whatever the merits and curiosities of that version, the original 1927 score is a fascinating cultural…

August 17, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonatas vol 3 (Alina Ibragimova; Cedric Tiberghien)

Tiberghien and Ibragimova maintain the wonderful synergy of their two previous albums in the final instalment of this riveting series. As with the others, it’s a challenge as to which of the countless felicities to mention first. The fluctuating dynamics are as good a point as any: Beethoven dubbed these works, in effect, piano sonatas with violin accompaniment (like Mozart’s) and the pair acknowledge this throughout, with long passages where the piano is rightly dominant. The three sonatas are well contrasted: the playful and witty Op 12 in E flat with its variable pulse in the first movement is perfectly captured by the pair, the rather banal theme (described as “dim-witted” in the liner notes) of the final movement completely transformed by the magic of their partnership. The Op 30 A-major Sonata is deliciously suave and Tiberghien is dominant in the slow movement, with Ibragimova reticent and the pianist dispatching the demanding variations of the last movement with panache. The series ends, appropriately, with the mighty Kreutzer sonata, perhaps the only work in this genre with the sense of drama and power we take for granted in Beethoven’s music. Here, Ibragimova is amazing: she may look gamine but her tone…

August 17, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEAUTY OF THE BAROQUE (soprano: Danielle de Niese; English Concert/Harry Bicket)

A celebration of the English, Italian and German Baroque? Or a celebration of one of Decca’s most marketable sopranos? It would be lovely to say this album was both. But the beauty of this repertoire has been brushed aside to make room for an underwhelming diva showcase. Danielle de Niese’s breathy, pop-inflected delivery, lazy diction and apparent disregard for both text and context do this music scant justice. Ombra mai fu, Dido’s Lament and Sheep can safely graze all receive saccharine, underpowered treatment with a shockingly pinched upper register for such a young singer. The relentlessly slow-and-ethereal vibe of the album does de Niese no favours either, highlighting as it does her one-size-fits-all approach. Occasional coloratura passages liven up proceedings slightly, but are not stylishly handled. Her voice is not fundamentally unattractive – indeed, there’s a certain prettiness to it which, coupled with her lithe stage presence and certain genetic blessings, has gained her a large and devoted following – but her singing here fails to live up to the promise of the album’s title. The English Concert plays well, but with only marginally more vibrancy than its soloist. The only person to emerge triumphant here is guest artist Andreas Scholl.

August 17, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ROSS EDWARDS: Heart of Night (Diana Doherty; Riley Lee; David Thomas; MSO)

Within seconds you recognise the voice, the unmistakable hypnotic undulations of one of our most frequently performed composers. Ross Edwards’ mature style began with a concerto, the ebullient Piano Concerto of 1982, and like his teachers Richard Meale, Peter Maxwell Davies and Peter Sculthorpe he has since embraced the key structures of Western classical music with enthusiasm. The recent Edwards oeuvre is dense, with multiple symphonies, string quartets and many concertos. This disc features three works in the latter genre for clarinet, oboe and shakuhachi, each written for and performed by principals from major orchestras (Diana Doherty and David Thomas) and notable soloists (Riley Lee). Each concerto is extremely well written, masterfully balancing slippery virtuosic solos with understated chamber-like orchestral writing. They are languid yet optimistic in character, their gentle edges unfolding effortlessly. Which is where I start to feel frustrated: there’s so little bite. Edwards has perfected his approach to such an extent he risks becoming a well-oiled machine, unlike the harsher, more intangible composer of the 1970s for whom nature remained a mystery and metaphysical questions couldn’t yet be answered. It’s not about pace: even the glacial First Symphony of 1991, reflecting anxiously on war and mortality, stepped…

August 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RACHMANINOV: Piano Sonatas Nos 1-2 (Leslie Howard)

It is hardly surprising that the Australian-born Leslie Howard has been typecast as a Liszt pianist: he recorded the Hungarian master’s complete piano works on 99 CDs. It is therefore interesting to hear him in other music, even if it is not far removed from his specialty. The two composers were both known as phenomenal lions of the keyboard, but what Rachmaninov also requires is depth of feeling. The last of the great Romantics, his piano music is imbued with a distinctively Russian angst. A full, deep tone is required to express the melancholy in his slow music and the barely concealed savagery in his turbulent climaxes.  Howard meets these demands, and puts them to good use in the earlier D minor Sonata (1907). In this work there is a sense of the composer stretching his wings: his habitual use of sequential passages in place of development is rather transparent, especially as the melodic content is not all that memorable. Howard finds moments of pure tranquillity in the slow movement but strikes me as heavy-handed in the rhythmically charged finale. The B flat minor Sonata is more mature. An entrancing slow movement opens with Scriabin-like chromatic harmony and later incorporates…

August 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CASALS ENCORES (cello: Alban Gerhardt; piano: Cecile Licad)

The encore is an awkward ritual, but without it concertgoers feel cheated. The audience knows the artist is coming back; the artist knows it, but still we cheer and applaud, willing the performer to reappear. When our exhortations are rewarded, the artist pretends the little nugget they’ve kept up their sleeve is a spontaneous addition. But presenting a satisfying encore is an art in itself, and Spanish cellist Pablo Casals had an arsenal of compact crowd-pleasers for precisely this purpose. No doubt a disc of beloved encores once popularised by the most revered cellist of the 20th century – some in Casals’ own transcriptions – means big shoes to fill for Alban Gerhardt, whose faultless technique and singing tone make this an admirable tribute. The program’s balanced selection contrasts favourites with rarities, sparkling virtuosic display with the slow, expressive numbers that defined Casals’ encore style. Some of the most famous inclusions are weighed down by familiarity – Elgar’s Salut d’amore, Saint-Saëns’s The Swan and Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude languish most. As is often the case in concert, the most successful offerings are the most surprising. Boccherini’s Sonata in A major is the ideal showcase for Gerhardt’s breathtakingly elegant phrasing and crisp,…

August 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ELGAR: Piano Quintet, String Quartet, Piano Works (Goldner Quartet; Piers Lane)

Written at Elgar’s remote cottage during a period of autumnal repose for an ageing composer, the two chamber works on this disc let the latter days of WWI and the encroaching musical avant-garde pass them by, basking in the comforting glow of romanticism. Despite this isolation, the Quintet in A minor Op 84 has some extroverted moments and a restless vigour that the Goldner Quartet and Piers Lane capture with flair, well paced and never overly sentimental. The quintet expounds Elgar’s gifts in exquisitely wrought miniature – one marvels at the economy of gesture and mastery of form with which he articulates such emotional extremes. It’s every bit the Elgar we know and love from his symphonies and ceremonial works: rousing English anthems subside into melancholy-tinged reflection; then pure Nimrod in the stately elegance of the Moderato theme. Lane brings delicate detail to the fore even in the most impassioned outbursts – with Julian Smiles’ cello he gets to the heart of one standout recurring motif, shimmering and almost Impressionistic as it drifts like falling leaves. The Quartet in E minor Op 83 is perhaps more rhythmically and harmonically adventurous, the Goldners dashing off rapid passagework in the final movement…

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