August 8, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet)

French animator Sylvain Chomet won a lot of fans with his resolutely charming The Triplets of Belleville eight years ago. His follow up is based on an unproduced, late 1950s script by the master French comedian and filmmaker Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday; Jour de Fete). An aging French conjuror, finding himself out of step in the raucous new rock‘n’roll era, travels to the UK – initially London – in search of an audience. In a coastal Scotland village he befriends a teenage girl who believes his tricks are genuine magic and follows him to Edinburgh, where they share digs in a boarding house populated by fellow vaudevillians and undergo a series of adventures. The film is best thought of as a fond homage to Tati from a sympathetic admirer rather than a literal attempt at realising his intentions (the original script took place largely in Prague and, of course, Tati never worked in animation). In this it succeeds exquisitely, capturing the spirit and feel of Tati’s understated, silent-era-inspired comedy, with its digs at the modern world, yet reinterpreting in the light of the animator’s distinctively stylised vision. In a film bathed in visual felicities, Edinburgh has never looked lovelier….

August 4, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench)

How to make Jane Eyre fresh again? Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 classic is one of the best-loved English novels, thanks in part to countless TV adaptations and films, most notably in 1943 with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles. That’s not even counting the subsequent novels (and their film adaptations) it has wholly or partly inspired, from authors such as Daphne du Maurier, Iris Murdoch and Jean Rhys. One way forward might be through inspired casting, a second through screenwriting that recognises the needs of film above the desire to represent the story in a more literal fashion (the latter being something the TV mini-series will always be able to do more easily because of its greater duration). To its advantage this compelling new version, directed by relatively little known American Cary Fukunaga and scripted by English dramatist Moira Buffini, recognizes both of these imperatives. The moorland setting is beautifully bleak, the cinematography splendid, and the screenplay pitches straight in without plodding through all of the book’s first part. As the self-possessed governess Jane, Mia Wasikowska is perfection – relatively plain, the right age (early 20s) and charismatic, while Michael Fassbender’s Mr Rochester is all glowering vigour. Pure pleasure.  

August 4, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MAHLER: Symphony No 10 (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Wigglesworth)

Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs are traditionally regarded as the last gasp of Romantic music, despite being written decades after its “official” demise. I prefer to bestow that mantle on Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, albeit only the so-called “torso” of the first movement and the tiny intermezzo-like purgatorio are completely orchestrated by him. Recent years have seen a plethora of different versions but Mark Wigglesworth cleaves to the original performing edition by Deryck Cooke. The performance is a superb achievement – sonically, interpretively and in execution. The opening Adagio sets forth like a stately galleon sailing into dark waters which seem to lap at the boundary of where the Ninth Symphony stopped. The dissonant shards are well handled and intensify the anguish. Both the second and fourth movements are scherzi and both exude Mahlerian ambiguity: febrile Viennese gaiety and even exaltation, undermined by nervous fluctuating metrical changes, with nostalgic violas in the second, alternating with a dance of death, again, similar to the Rondo burleske in the Ninth. The pivot is the purgatorio movement, barely five minutes long, which starts innocently but soon becomes insidious. My only criticism relates to the start of the final Adagio, where the score calls for…

August 4, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Apres un reve: Strauss, Faure, Britten, Chausson (soprano: Sandrine Piau)

If Sandrine Piau is aging, then nobody has passed the message on to her voice. The French soprano sounds as fresh and ravishing now as she ever has – and this new disc is another pearl in her exceptional solo discography. In line with the title, a dreamlike air pervades this selection of French, German and English songs. Piau’s iridescent soprano, underpinned by the limpid, evocative playing of her regular recital partner Susan Manoff, is ideally suited to the magic (and often the melancholy) of this music. Her voice’s natural shimmer becomes a fully-fledged glow in the Richard Strauss selections which open the disc – Piau’s rendition of the oft-recorded Morgen! could stand with the best of them – and of course she’s especially at ease in the French repertoire. Phrases floated sweetly in the air are her particular talent, but there’s no lack of expressive variety here. With unfailing sensitivity and elegant phrasing, she conveys the rapid cynicism of Poulenc’s Fêtes galantes as easily as the stillness of Mendelssohn’s Schlafloser Augen Leuchte or the rapture of Chausson’s Amour d’antan. The Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs) of contemporary composer Vincent Bouchot are a delightful surprise, and Piau renders them in vivid, memorable…

August 4, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: THE METALLIC VIOLINS (Natsuko Yoshimoto, James Cuddeford)

You’d be surprised what just two violins can do. Natsuko Yoshimoto and James Cuddeford, formerly the upper half of both the Australian String Quartet and Grainger Quartet, have long commissioned more than their fair share of inventive, witty and often very beautiful Australian duets. This excellent disc presents the final fruits of their joint mission and the array is diverse. Echoes of folk music appear in Stuart Greenbaum’s Danny Boy Variations and Andrew Ford’s affecting pair of works, balanced by Cuddeford’s sober memorial to the victims of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Roger Smalley and Elena Kats-Chernin both turn in sets of neat miniatures alongside a clever Compossible by David Harris. For me, however, the standouts are the opening and closing tracks. Matthew Hindson’s titular piece is hedonistic and energetic, maturely fusing his early attraction to pop music with new sonic complexities. By contrast Mary Finsterer’s Spherica No 1 is ethereal and otherworldly, the violins spinning a careful web of glistening harmonics.  Cuddeford and Yoshimoto were married at the time of this recording and the disc is by default a powerful portrait of their lengthy musical and personal partnership. The pair sound highly attuned to each other, almost as if…

August 4, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: NEAPOLITAN SONGS: Fra’ Diavolo (Marco Beasley t; Pino de Vittorio voc; Accordone)

The Italian early music group Accordone was founded by members of L’Arpeggiata and trades in similar repertoire, reinventing Neapolitan folk music with a captivating blend of period-instrument Baroque precision and improvisatory abandon. The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra has toured with both ensembles in Australia, which begs the question: why is this style so popular? Well, there’s plenty of dancing. Accordone’s new album is bursting with ritual tarantellas and jaunty peasant songs. The sunny Mediterranean chitarro guitar adds to the zest of castanets and tambourines, but the incessant stamping rhythms can become exhausting. If percussive excess tires the ear, the voice of Marco Beasley soothes it. Soulful and supple, his is an instrument ideally attuned to the album’s serenades and lullabies. Nowhere is the tenor more beguiling than in the sensual chromatic descent of Volumbrella, caressed by the velvet sheen of a viol quartet. Pino de Vittorio’s more brazen, traditional folk style is an excellent foil to Beasley’s sweeter tone in theatrical duets. And those rolled Italian Rs add still more rustic bite! These vibrant songs are based around the life and times of the infamous Fra’ Diavolo (Brother Devil), an 18th-century freedom fighter against the French occupation of Naples. Judging by the lyrics, Accordone…

July 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner and Me (Stephen Fry)

Genial and general arts all-rounder Stephen Fry provides a useful introduction to Wagner in this new DVD. The film is full of fascinating behind-the-scenes activity in various opera houses, including Bayreuth. It’s also nicely shot, although I found a few of the musical edits a little clumsy. Fry has been criticised for inaccuracy, casual frivolity and for a “gee-gosh” approach to the subject. While there is some merit in those comments, what remains is an engaging journey through the Wagner myth and some of the music; an ideal introduction for those new to the composer and his works – and great fun for the rest of us. Fry also gets to grips with the serious side of the music, and the scene where he examines the astonishing Tristan chord is moving and instructional. Many Wagnerians take a deeply serious approach to the work of the great composer, especially The Ring. But high art needs its populist proselytisers, and Fry is ideally placed. He not only reveres Wagner, but is Jewish into the bargain – and this dilemma provides the film with added frisson. He handles this piece of hot toast adroitly and with feeling.  Fry is such a Wagnerite that…

July 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ROSSINI: Arias (soprano: Julia Lezhneva; Sinfonia Varsovia/Minkowski)

At just 21 years old, Julia Lezhneva already has an enviable list of engagements to her name, and a growing discography: this release marks her third album by Naïve, and her solo début.  For such a young singer, the protégée of Kiri Te Kanawa, Lezhneva is indeed remarkable – but an artist promoted so heavily and so early needs to display a talent which transcends her age rather than making a selling point of it, and on this showing Lezhneva has yet to reach that point. Nor is she helped by the choice of repertoire here, a series of grand Rossini scenes, most of which demand greater maturity and vocal grandeur than Lezhneva can yet muster. Her voice is attractive, and dazzlingly agile, and she’s a sterling musician, but one senses she’s not yet tapped into the full expressive possibilities of her voice, nor yet sufficiently strengthened it at either top or bottom. Florid selections like Tanti affetti or Bel raggio lusinghier are reasonably successful – and her ardent Non più mesta is the disc’s highlight – but slower arias, like Sombre forêt or Giusto ciel, fall short, showing gorgeous legato but very little colour or sense of drama. If Naïve were determined…

July 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BAROQUE DUETS (Fiona Campbell; David Walker; Ironwood)

This collection reunites Australian mezzo-soprano Fiona Campbell and American countertenor David Walker in duet following performances with Pinchgut Opera in Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans and Cavalli’s L’Ormindo. The latter was the starting point for this inspired partnership, with two scenes bound to please Pinchgut devotees since the production was never recorded for commercial release. A protégé of Monteverdi, Cavalli was the most influential and prolific opera composer of the 17th century. With duets from his L’Ormindo and La Calisto framing the album, Campbell and Walker invite listeners to dine on a banquet of Italian Baroque delicacies, with a few choice excerpts from Handel’s English oratorios and operas for good measure. Most of the duets being love songs or laments, there is much sighing and weeping and few opportunities to break out of a solemn mood.  In L’Ormindo’s extended Act III death scene Campbell’s warm mezzo is not always as controlled as it could be, but her unbridled fervour captures the anguish of a heroine’s darkest hour. Luminous, vibrato-less strings from period-instrument ensemble Ironwood bring clarity and gravity to the moment. Pur ti miro from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea is the earliest work on the menu and the most ravishing, with voices…

July 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: REGER: Piano Concerto; STRAUSS: Burleske (piano: Marc-Andre Hamelin; Berlin RSO/Volkov)

Marc-André Hamelin is one of the greatest pianists alive today. His technique is superhuman, as is his memory for the reams of notes penned by Alkan and Godowsky. He has recorded many fine discs for Hyperion, which is fortunate as it gives the potential buyer plenty to choose instead of this one. Of all the German late-Romantics, Max Reger is the hardest to love. His textures are thick, his themes unmemorable and his dense counterpoint impenetrable. His best pieces are sets of variations on themes by other composers: Mozart, Hiller and Bach. Left to his own devices, as in this bloated Brahmsian concerto from 1910, his worst habits come to the fore, including haste: he composed and scored the 38-minute monster in a matter of weeks. Contemporary critics were scathing – and rightly so. Out of those 38 minutes at least 30 are a waste of Hamelin’s time, including the entire third movement where the soloist flails about like a wounded animal struggling to escape the endless chromatic sequences. The unprepared final D-major chord is ridiculous. I have owned an RCA disc of this coupling for years (rarely played) with the excellent Irish pianist Barry Douglas. I would have thought…

July 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Poeme (violin: Julia Fischer; Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo/Kreizberg)

The last recording I reviewed by Julia Fischer was her standout performance of the Paganini Caprices, where the performer was in splendid isolation, with nothing between her and her audience. Here she performs wrapped in the embrace of rich orchestration, in concert works by Ottorino Respighi (Poema autunnale), Josef Suk (Fantasy in D minor), Ernest Chausson (Poème, Op 25) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (The Lark Ascending).  The Suk work runs to 25 minutes. At that length, and in its dramatic scope, it amounts to a virtual one-movement violin concerto. The other pieces are much shorter, at around 15 minutes each. None except for the ethereal Lark is heard much on stage nowadays.  Yet they all deserve a wide audience. The drama of both the Suk and the Chausson and the warmly evocative nature of the Respighi make fine companions for the Vaughan Williams. Perhaps the finest piece of all here is the Chausson work which gives its name to this collection. Its drama is indeed revealed within an intensely poetic setting. Fischer’s playing is of the highest calibre throughout the album, but for the Chausson she really makes her violin sing.  She plays an 18th-century instrument by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini,…

July 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN: Diabelli Variations (piano: Paul Lewis)

In 1819 the publisher Anton Diabelli asked several composers each to write a single variation on a fairly nondescript waltz of his own. Beethoven set the task aside for four years – possibly the collegiate nature of the commission held little appeal – but eventually returned to Diabelli’s theme, proceeding to de- and re-construct every aspect of it in a monumental set of 33 variations. A major work, it postdates the piano sonatas and was composed at the same time as the Choral Symphony. This is late Beethoven, the deaf and obsessive composer who pushed the envelope and for whom an executant’s stamina was no longer a consideration. The variations display a double dose of virtuosity. For one thing, they stretch the pianist technically: the rapid Variations 17, 25 and 28 are as dazzling and difficult as any of Chopin’s Etudes. They also showcase the brilliance of Beethoven’s musical imagination. Paul Lewis has recorded Beethoven’s sonatas and concertos to great acclaim. While he responds to the gradations of tone and dynamics required, he is more “old-school” than some other young pianists (Brendel was his mentor). Some critics have found Lewis stolid, even dull: I don’t think so at all. His…

July 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Paradiso (Hayley Westenra; Ennio Morricone)

It’s been a charmed career so far for Hayley Westenra. At the age of 16, her crossover album Pure became the fastest selling album in the history of the classical charts, fuelled by Westenra’s blend of choirgirl voice and angelic looks. That was 2003, this is now, and the 23-year-old Westenra, after a stint with crossover hotties Celtic Woman, has scored an astonishing coup in getting Ennio Morricone to provide new bespoke arrangements for an album of his songs. The classic theme from The Mission has been given lyrics for the first time (penned by Westenra), reemerging as Whispers in a Dream alongside tracks freshly squeezed from Cinema Paradiso, Once Upon a Time in the West etc. All these arrangements are conducted by Morricone with his 120-piece orchestra, the Sinfonietta di Roma –  no synthesized strings here. Westenra’s voice has retained all its fabled choirgirl purity; and although it’s far from smooth across its range, she is always pitch-perfect, which is all you need for melodies that basically sell themselves. The final result is as schmaltzy as all get-out, but Westenra deserves plaudits for pushing the boundaries of the crossover canon beyond Danny Boy and You Raise Me Up.

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