September 15, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: REICH: WTC 9/11; Mallet Quartet; Dance Patterns (Kronos Quartet; So Percussion; Steve Reich)

Steve Reich’s highly anticipated September 11 lament comes ten years after the terrorist attacks and the release itself was not without controversy (note the revised album artwork). His account is everything we have come to expect from America’s greatest minimalist, and therein lies the problem. WTC 9/11 serves as a bookend to the Kronos Quartet’s 1988 collaboration with the composer, Different Trains: a profound work in which the strings echo the sampled speech of Holocaust survivors. Reich has rehashed the technique, this time with the voices of air traffic controllers and firemen who were among the first to grasp the magnitude of the American tragedy. What fails to move me is the mimicry, so poignant in Different Trains but cumbersome and almost tasteless here. Redeeming melodic interest comes in a reflective section of Hebrew Psalms, sung by Jews who prayed for the dead on the scene. Just shy of 16 minutes long, WTC 9/11 is as immediately terse and engaging as, say, Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Reich’s structure and economy of means are masterful, but with the entire disc running to only 36 minutes I feel short-changed, despite the inclusion of a DVD. Even in fine readings…

September 15, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Latitude 37: Baroque music from Italy and Spain

The Latitude 37 trio has added its refined voice to Australia’s small but vibrant early music community, with a debut release that adheres to much the same winning formula as the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Baroque Tapas, also featuring Laura Vaughan. One senses the ensemble’s inventiveness as a whole as well as the personalities of the players and their guests. Their rapport is most rewarding in Salaverde’s Canzon a due, where Julia Fredersdorff’s sweet-toned Baroque violin interlaces with the drier gamba passages, sensitively underscored by Donald Nicolson on chamber organ. The overall selection is perhaps more solemn than that of Tapas, as in the opening regal procession of Diego Ortiz’s Passamezzo antico and two pieces by Caccini and Palestrina, with Siobhán Stagg’s light soprano beaming through clouds. Some tracks replace gamba with the lirone, an Italian continuo instrument with a unique, gossamer sheen to its plaintive chords.  There’s plenty to liven up proceedings: Guy du Blêt’s varied percussion is essential to the success of the album in exuberant spagnoletta dance rhythms and a rustic Kapsberger passacaglia. Improvised, virtuosic flourishes over ground bass are executed by all players with flair. A small world, but one full of discovery.

September 15, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Eye of the Storm (Geoffrey Rush; Judy Davis; John Gaden)

Patrick White’s intimidating literary reputation may have formed a barrier to his novels hitting the screen before now. But director Fred Schepisi, screenwriter Judy Morris and a dream cast headed by Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis and Charlotte Rampling have done such a magnificent job in bringing his 1973 The Eye of the Storm to the screen that it would be no surprise to see further White adaptations in its wake. In this brisk and handsomely mounted tragi-comedy Rampling (made up to look older than she is) plays eccentric and controlling matriarch Elizabeth Hunter, who mischievously holds court over her household – two nurses, a housekeeper (an overly fruity Helen Morse) and her just-arrived offspring, actor Sir Basil (Rush) and cash-challenged princess Dorothy (Davis). The siblings are more interested in their own inheritance and – in Basil’s case – sexual conquests than their mother’s deteriorating health, the ostensible reason for their sudden return from Europe. Parallels with King Lear (explicit) and Bergman’s Cries and Whispers are obvious, only here tart comedy takes precedence over tragedy. The leads make a meal of their roles in the best possible sense, while the director’s daughter, Alexandra Schepisi, makes a major impression as love-seeking nurse Flora.

September 8, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: THE GUITAR (Milos Karadaglic)

“The music on this recording reflects my character. It tells the listener who I am,” writes classical guitar sensation Miloš Karadaglic, 27, in the booklet notes to The Guitar, his debut recording for Deutsche Grammophon. Indeed, the album reflects not only Montenegro-born Miloš’s love affair with the sea but the Spanish, Greek, Italian and Turkish origins of the music. Youthful exuberance may be what first springs to mind when listening to the explosive energy of Albéniz’s Asturias, the bustling cheerfulness of the same composer’s Sevilla and the Presto movement of Domeniconi’s Koyunbaba, but there’s also a mature lyricism in those works which invite it, such as Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra, Llobet’s El testament de n’Amelia and Granados’s exquisite Oriental. There are also fine accounts of student favourites such as Tárrega’s Lágrima, Adelita and Capricho árabe, as well as delicate renderings of Theodorakis’s Epitáphios Nos 3 and 4. The only misstep is a cheesy beefing-up of the Spanish Romance, with the English Chamber Orchestra providing gratuitous accompaniment to a warhorse that should have been consigned to the knacker’s yard many years ago. Miloš may well be the classical guitar world’s new pin-up boy, but the playing’s the thing. The Guitar is a…

September 8, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BOITO: Mefistofele (Dimitra Theodossiou; Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Massimo Palermo/Ranazani)

This fascinating opera has had an uneven reputation from day one. Although Boito is better known as the brilliant librettist to Verdi’s last two masterpieces, Falstaff and Otello, he was also a composer of some standing, and Mefistofele was his magnum opus. It is the Faust legend, but done more flamboyantly and with a different dramatic emphasis than Gounod’s. Boito’s opera is a series of vignettes, with gaps between some scenes that do not always add up to a dramatic whole. In this opera, the character of Margherita is almost a sideshow. The main drama takes place between Mefistofele, Faust and God – as represented by a heavenly host, the chorus. By the final act and epilogue Margherita is long gone, leaving the stage to the three protagonists. It all works up to a wonderfully bombastic and exciting finale. Having seen a fine production of this opera in Vienna, I can attest to the work’s power on stage. Flawed it might be, but it is much more fun than Gounod’s Faust, and more dramatic. This live recording comes from the opera house in Palermo and is an effective enough performance from a good provincial opera house. The cast is uniformly…

September 8, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BYRD, TALLIS, SHEPPARD: Stabat Mater (The Parsons Affayre)

There are only a handful of vocal ensembles in Australia equipped to give persuasive and informed performances of Renaissance liturgical music. This Sydney-based early music group certainly has the right choral credentials, having formed in 2009 after members took part in the Tallis Scholars Summer School program. The Parsons Affayre model themselves after that revered choir in English Catholic Renaissance repertoire; this latest disc follows a release devoted to the music of their namesake, Tudor composer Robert Parsons. The new album takes its title from the florid Stabat mater of William Cornysh (d 1523). It is one of the most impressive performances here: pure, soaring soprano lines, expertly balanced in counterpoint with the basses, maintain momentum through time changes. Inner voices, however, are less assured. Byrd’s famous motet Ave verum corpus is well controlled and casts an appropriately solemn mood, but might have benefited from more contrast and expansive shaping. His Infelix ego is sweet and airy in sustained soprano notes.  The basses are the stars of the darker-hued Tallis Lamentations of Jeremiah I. This reading opens rigidly but weaving polyphonic textures begin to bloom beautifully as the choir warms to the work. The plaintive, repeated cries of  “Jerusalem” towards…

September 8, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MAGNIFICAT: Organ of the Scots Church Melbourne (Douglas Lawrence)

Anyone who has heard the four-manual organ designed for Melbourne’s Scots Church by Austria’s Rieger firm will be aware of its heart-stopping magnificence. The church’s resident organist Douglas Lawrence offers an inspired choice of pieces avoiding the hackneyed at every turn; only Buxtehude’s Prelude and Fugue in G Minor could be called popular.  The intricate polyphony of Bach’s E minor Trio BWV528 is best conveyed by an organist with three heads; pending that particular anatomical configuration, Lawrence’s performance attains everything that could be desired. A virtuosic prelude by Gabriel Pierné – the former Franck pupil who conducted the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Firebird – makes a beguiling alternative to Widor’s Toccata and fully deserves the attention Lawrence expends on it. From half a century earlier comes a splendid contribution in B flat major by Alexandre Boëly (1785-1858), one of the very few Frenchmen of his time who cared for Bachian counterpoint. Among Boëly’s predecessors, Michel Corrette (1709-1795) harks back gratifyingly in his own music to the great age of Couperin.   Where lesser players too often impart a stodginess to German Baroque material, Lawrence demonstrates his keen gift for registrations at once idiomatic and ear-catching. Whilst perhaps the recording quality lacks…

September 1, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SIBELIUS: Symphony No 2; Karelia Suite (New Zealand SO/Inkinen)

Pietari Inkinen maintains the high standards he has achieved with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and their distinguished Sibelius cycle. However, the competition is much stronger here (Karajan, Järvi, etc) and I don’t think I’m able to give quite as unqualified an endorsement to the performance as the previous release (Symphonies 4 and 5). Nonetheless, the results are impressive. At just over 44 minutes, tempi are splendidly central (it’s hard to believe the great Sibelius conductor Kajanus got through it in 39’!) but what impresses me most about the reading is the articulation of the strings and both the alert playing of the woodwinds and the way the engineers have captured it. The work was said to have been partly inspired while Sibelius was visiting Italy and there’s certainly plenty of Mediterranean warmth once the first movement gets going, and in the trio of the quicksilver scherzo. Perhaps it helps to be Finnish but Inkinen seems to judge this music unerringly and maintains the odd arctic chill amid the pastoral charm. He doesn’t over-egg the pudding either in the final brass peroration, which can sound laboured if too drawn out, but maintains a convincing intensity. The Karelia suite was one…

September 1, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART: Arias (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo; Orchestra del Teatro Regio di Torino/Noseda)

His Deutsche Grammophon contract may be relatively recent, but Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo has been around for quite some time. On this new disc, he’s palpably at ease, singing arias from the Italian Mozart roles which have been his bread and butter for a couple of decades. The program holds few surprises – Mozart basses and baritones are rather less spoilt for choice than their soprano counterparts – but D’Arcangelo’s vocal swagger is enough to keep these familiar favourites fresh. He’s at his best in the faster-paced comic arias: the Italianate bite of his timbre, coupled with a native speaker’s suave command of the text, allows him to tread nimbly and engagingly through Figaro’s Aprite un po’ quegli occhi, Leporello’s catalogue aria and Count Almaviva’s Vedro mentr’io sospiro. In Don Giovanni’s serenade, he’s muscular if not massively seductive, but Finch’han del vino is energetically delivered, as is Se vuol ballare. Differentiation between characters could be stronger, but each aria in itself is vivid enough, and one imagines that a stage could easily elicit the charisma occasionally lacking on disc. No doubt for variety’s sake, D’Arcangelo also includes a few lesser-known concert arias. These free-standing showpieces, with their generic texts, haven’t…

September 1, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MENDELSSOHN Piano Concerto; Double Concerto (fortepiano: Kristian Bezuidenhout; Freiburger Barockorchester/von der Goltz)

As a child prodigy Mendelssohn composed this Piano Concerto when aged just 13 for his sister Anna; the Double Concerto for violin and piano followed just a year later. But these works go far beyond early-teen precocity. They brim with delicious insight and innovation, and easily could have come from the composer’s assured maturity. The Piano Concerto in particular is stamped with a wonderful dynamism which demonstrates his contagious and exhilarating confidence in his own prowess. The middle-movement Adagio gives pause for reflection, but the jaunty Finale reaffirms the joy of being so gifted, and just 13.  The Double Concerto seems more consciously mature. But the lessening of an impetuous joie de vivre in the earlier work is more than compensated for by the sheer beauty of its writing and in the more reflective nature of the dialogue between the two solo instruments. The Freiburger Barockorchester led by violinist Gottfried von der Goltz gives a nicely judged accompaniment – which is the right term, as this Double Concerto is really a Sonata for two instruments with orchestral support. These period-instrument performances give full expression to Mendelssohn’s gifts. Particularly pleasing is the beautiful tone of Kristian Bezuidenhout’s fortepiano, an American model copied…

August 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: GLASS: Mad Rush (piano: Sally Whitwell)

First of all I need to put my cards on the table – I am a Philip Glass fan. I’m not sure why that feels like such a confession but it probably needs stating, like declaring hidden goods at customs. This is a collection of piano pieces by the “mature” Glass, not the early radical who alternately awed and angered the music community with his heavily amplified and surreal take on Western music’s basics but the genteel classicist who has embraced symphonies and concertos with increasing ardour. For many years Glass retained strict control over his catalogue, ensuring a steady stream of performance engagements, however since his extraordinary commercial breakthrough the gates have slowly opened to others revealing a more nuanced character than one might assume. This is a beautiful and sensitive reading of the repertoire by Sally Whitwell, one of Sydney’s busiest and most broadminded pianists. Whitwell’s take on works like Mad Rush and Wichita Vortex Sutra (originally a duet with Allen Ginsberg) reveals a passion often absent in Glass’s own interpretations; likewise she brings refreshing chiaroscuro to the famous Opening from Glassworks. In her hands the latent echoes of earlier composers become clear: Glass, schooled by Nadia Boulanger,…

August 23, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology

What is jazz? There is no concise answer, but this handsomely packaged boxed set offers a wealth of delightful and persuasive answers. It does so over the course of six CDs of wonderful music, along with informative and persuasive essays about jazz history, the artists represented here, and the specific performances included – as well as plenty of classic photographs. Unlike the previous Smithsonian anthology, assembled by US jazz critic Martin Williams back in the vinyl era, this one is the product of a team effort, with over 100 jazz experts (from the USA and other countries) consulted during a painstaking debate over which artists should be included, and which recordings should be chosen as representative of their best and/or most influential contributions to the jazz canon. The set runs (for the most part) in chronological order, enabling us to marvel at the sheer zest, power and inventiveness of what must have sounded incredibly new and exotic when the average listener first heard Louis Armstrong in his prime, or Jelly Roll Morton, or Sidney Bechet, or Bix Beiderbecke. The set takes us through the swing era, with the big bands of Basie, Ellington, Shaw and Goodman, and the combos led by Billie…

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.