January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: GUDMUNDSEN-HOLMGREEN Kronos Plays Holmgreen (baritone: Paul Hillier; Kronos Quartet; Danish NSO/Dausgaard)

He is an iconoclast who pioneered “new simplicity” (a reaction to the “new complexity” that was fashionable in 1970’s Europe). This CD focuses on his most recent works for String Quartet, Concerto Grosso for String Quartet and Orchestra, Moving Still for Baritone and Quartet and Last Ground for Quartet and Ocean sounds. The Kronos Quartet has enjoyed a long relationship with Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, having commissioned and premiered his 8th Quartet, Ground, in ‘84 as well as the other works on the CD in ‘90, ‘04 and ‘06 respectively. Concerto Grosso is an engaging through-composed work that strongly features the percussion section. More emotionally affecting is Moving Still, for baritone and string quartet, written for the bicentenary of Hans Christian Andersen. The first movement is based on text by Andersen where he aptly predicts that Americans will one day be able to fly to Europe and see it all in a week. The second movement is based on a popular song setting of Andersen’s In Denmark I was Born. It is an unusually beautiful work which becomes more and more Arabic-sounding, a commentary on the increasingly multicultural makeup of Denmark. The final work, Last Ground, has been described as the composer’s farewell…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUBERT Winterreise (tenor: Mark Padmore, piano: Paul Lewis)

Mark Padmore’s recording has much to be said for it. It is sung in the original keys rather than the lower keys preferred by baritones and basses. The singer has an agreeable voice, although it lacks the romantic warmth of German voices; he is musically sensitive and meets all the dramatic and emotional demands of the music. His voice does not, however, appear to be a very strong one. Its compass also seems somewhat limited. His low notes are not firm and the quality of his voice sometimes deteriorates when the tessitura gets too high for him, particularly in strenuous passages. At other, quieter, moments, his singing almost verges on crooning. As might be expected, Paul Lewis gives a highly musical and technically efficient account of the piano part, but he does not make the most of the onomatopoeic passages, such as the leaves rustling in Der Lindenbaum and the dogs barking in Im Dorfe. The best tenor performance I have heard in recent years has been that by Christoph Pregardien (Teldec), but intending purchasers might also like to consider Hans Hotter’s performance (lately re-issued by EMI in a box set) and also Thomas Quasthoff on RCA. Padmore’s is a…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Broadway Without Words (Richard Hayman & orchestra)

In many cases the lyrics provided the inspiration for the music. Many of the arrangements are perfunctory, which is surprising given Hayman’s reputation. As we are missing crucial elements of the whole, I would have expected more than just a shopping list of tunes. Some of these scores respond well to the full orchestral treatment. Surprisingly, Charles Strouse’s music for Annie does. As do those that originally had a whiff of operetta about them, such as Showboat and Carousel. Others, such as Oliver! simply sound top heavy. Then there are the ‘popera’ scores; the recent fashion for faux operettas, such as Phantom of the Opera. In the cold light of day, Lloyd Webber’s shallow Tosca-like chords from Phantom sound very pompous and threadbare. Similarly, famous songs like ‘Climb Every Mountain’ from The Sound of Music sound bloated and pretentious. Another surprise was how musically thin is Les Mis when given this treatment. Like so many recent musicals, it’s all show and little substance. Oklahoma responds graciously to the big band treatment; but then Richard Rogers was a real composer. The main drawback is that these arrangements make this diverse selection of scores sound much the same. I can’t see this…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Verdi Tenors: Various arias (tenor: Marcelo Álvarez; Coro e Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/Oren)

Born in Argentina in 1962, he was a comparatively late starter, commencing his career as late as 1994. After initial encouragement in his homeland from Giuseppe di Stefano and Luciano Pavarotti he went to Europe where he achieved quick success in Venice, Genoa, Hamburg, London, Tokyo and Vienna. He made his New York Metropolitan debut in 1998 in La Traviata and his Covent Garden debut in 2000. He has already made six CDs for Sony. He began singing in Verdi operas in the lighter, lyrical roles like the Duke in Rigoletto and Alfredo in La Traviata (neither of which is represented on this disc). From these, he progressed to slightly heavier roles like Rodolfo in Luisa Miller and Manrico in Il trovatore. These both appear on this disc, as do two of the most powerful Verdi tenor roles which Alvarez has not yet sung on the stage, Otello and Radames in Aida. He does justice to all the roles recorded here. His voice is powerful, steady and clear, perhaps wanting in warmth, but of good quality. He is certainly alive to all the dramatic demands of these arias, so much so that listening to 14 arias in a row became…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MENDELSSOHN Quartet in E minor Op. 44 No. 2 MOZART Quartet in C, K. 465 “Dissonance” SCHUBERT Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703 (Elias String Quartet)

The Elias Quartet (named after the prophet Elijah) was formed in 1998 and consists of two Frenchwomen, a Scot and a Swede. This is their first CD. It was recorded live at a concert at London’s Wigmore Hall and is put out under the Hall’s own label. Anyone wanting this particular selection of quartets can be safely guided to this disc although it is not an unqualified success. The members of the quartet state that they were somewhat daunted at being recorded live and this is noticeable in the Mozart Quartet. Here, the leader is too reticent and often fails to project the music or to take the lead. (The cellist is much better in this respect.)  There are certainly better recordings of this work, notably by the Budapest Quartet. The players seem to recover their confidence in the Mendelssohn Quartet, a work about which they claim to have very positive feelings. Their performance of this beautiful work is excellent and they make a particularly ravishing sound in the lovely andante movement. Their performance is justly rewarded with vociferous applause from the audience and the players then oblige with an encore in the shape of the slow movement from Mendelssohn’s Quartet…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Asturias: The Spirit of Spain (guitars: Timothy Kain, Minh Le Hoang, Daniel McKay, Stephen Poskitt)

Some of the ten individual pieces of music here are instantly familiar, but enough of them are not to make this a more interesting set than it might otherwise be. It is not a CD of surprises, but it is another hour of this ensemble performing in the way that has made them very popular. The acoustic guitar is far from being everyone’s cup of tea, but that is more a reflection on how it handles music than any failing on the part of those who strum. Here are four who do it about as well as it can be done, and it is hard to see how Guitar Trek could do more than they already do, or do it better. They have extended the domain of the acoustic guitar to the point where there can be little to add to the repertoire, barring some entirely unexpected turn in the evolution of the instrument, or some new brainwave occurring to Kain and friends. If you share their special interest, this CD will certainly be a rewarding addition to your collection.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: IRELAND Piano Trios (Gould Piano Trio; violin: Lucy Gould, cello: Alice Neary, piano: Benjamin Frith)

There is little in his life of any controversy, and his music itself is conventionally pleasant much more than adventurous. There is no such thing as an Ireland symphony, and he never wielded the baton of a conductor, though he did run to a single piano concerto. Hats off to Naxos, then, for presenting his more extensive catalogue of chamber music and proving that for all his perceived limitations, Ireland was more than just an occasional associate of the likes of Stanford, Britten and Moeran. Here are all three of his Piano Trios, plus four short duos for violin and piano, covering an extended period of over 30 years in the first half of the 20th century. In fact, the Trios alone take in that entire time-span, with the third and longest coming almost 20 years later than his work on any of the others. It was an eventful time in history, and it is tempting to listen out for musical signs of his perceptions of life as he knew it. But in the end Ireland remained introverted and undemonstrative, and perhaps in respecting that we may better understand how fine the music he left was.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Sonatas for fortepiano and violin (violin: Petra Müllejans; fortepiano: Kristian Bezuidenhout)

This, their first recording together, again features Mozart. All four works on this disc were written between 1778 and 1784 as the composer began to find his mature voice. At this time performances of works of this nature involved much improvisation. In fact, as Mozart wrote to his father, one such sonata (probably K.379) was completed so near its performance he didn’t have time to write out the piano part. It is this spirit of improvisation that Müllejans and Bezuidenhout have attempted to capture in this recording – and capture it they have. These are recordings of exceptional quality. Throughout, the balance between Müllejan’s violin and Bezuidenhout’s fortepiano is natural sounding and the co-ordination between them flawless and seemingly telepathic. More intelligent and informed performances would be hard to find and highlights abound. For example, in K.454 alone, there is the effortless transition from the Largo to the Allegro in the opening movement, the beautiful phrasing and finely judged tonal balance between the dampened fortepiano and violin in the plaintive 2nd movement and the delightful interplay of the Finale (Allegretto).Similar highlights can be found in the other three works on this marvellously entertaining disc. Unconditionally recommended.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Russian Masterpieces (cello: Zuill Bailey; San Francisco Ballet Orchestra/West)

As Tchaikovsky neared completion of his Rococo Variations for the German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, he gave a copy of the unpublished score to Fitzenhagen so that his dedicatee could check to make sure his cello writing was idiomatic. Fitzenhagen went a lot further and much to the composer’s chagrin, rewrote and reordered substantial amounts of the work. This, however, quickly became the accepted performing version. (Tchaikovsky’s original was not published until 1941.) It is the Fitzenhagen version that Israeli cellist Zuill Bailey has chosen to perform for this recording. Bailey is an excellent cellist with a solid technique who takes a straightforward view of this work that is, for the most part, highly successful. Only occasionally does the performance waiver, as in Variation 9, which would benefit from a much lighter touch. The Pezzo capriccioso and Nocturne in D minor (Tchaikovsky’s transcription of his Op. 19 Nocturne for piano) both receive workman-like performances. Shostakovich wrote his 1st Cello Concerto for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich who both debuted and recorded it in 1959 – this time with the composer’s approval! Unfortunately, Bailey’s approach to this concerto is much less successful; where Rostropovich’s larger-than-life personality takes Shostakovich’s myriad of ideas and styles and…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VIVALDI Juditha Triumphans (Pinchgut Opera; Cantillation; Orchestra of the Antipodes/Cremonesi)

This vocal master-work from Vivaldi is less than a decade short of its 300th birthday but here comes up fresh and sparkling, and with the zest of a teenager. Vivaldi, who we know best as an instrumental composer, claimed to have composed some 90 operas, but few are heard today. This work is even rarer. The liner notes tell us that as well as the operas, he wrote four oratorios. But Juditha Triumphans, based on a particularly blood-thirsty Biblical tale and described as a ‘sacred military oratorio’, is the only work to have come down to us. Judged by this sole work, the loss is ours. For the work is endlessly inventive, with some passages propelled by energetic momentum, and others paced like some peaceful inner reflection that ebbs and flows like our thoughts. The choral singing and the orchestral playing of Cantillation and the Orchestra of the Antipodes manage to combine forthright appeal with fragile delicacy when needed. And the five vocalists are beautifully matched, with contralto Sally-Anne Russell particularly affecting in the title role. The oratorio for the most part has survived, but its overture has been lost. In its place, the Orchestra of the Antipodes performs a…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MACMILLAN Seven Last Words from the Cross (The Dmitri Ensemble/Ross)

These seven sentences are immensely powerful statements with enormous dramatic potential. MacMillan’s setting is the most successful of all the above, and is rightly considered his masterpiece. His musical language straddles the modernist world and the holy minimalist world of Tavener and Pärt, but is drawn from the Celtic tradition rather than their Orthodox world. One striking feature of MacMillan’s writing is his torn-off statements that hang in the air during unusually long silences, which he uses so effectively in both the second movement “Woman, behold thy Son” and the opening of the last movement, “Father, into thy hands I commend my Spirit”. This is music that is truly heartbreaking. Most performances of it plunge the audience into floods of tears and if MacMillan had only written this work, his position in the lineage of English music would be assured (although he would remind people that indeed he was Scottish). The Dmitri Ensemble under Graham Ross are simply magnificent, the singing and playing are utterly committed and cannot be more highly praised. This is a masterwork of our time perfectly captured by a profound performance.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Emma Matthews in Monte Carlo: Arias and songs (soprano: Emma Matthews; Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo/Cohen)

This is the latest in a series of excellent CDs by Australian singers I have reviewed recently in these columns, the others being by Damian Whiteley, Yvonne Kenny and Deborah Riedel. As all Australian music lovers now know, Emma Matthews has a beautiful voice and a secure technique and, like many Australian singers from Melba onwards, an instinctive feeling for the right style in any music she sings. Here, she is completely successful in all she undertakes – from Proch’s music box Variations (without obliterating memories of Miliza Korjus’s remarkable record) to songs by Leonard Bernstein and Australian composers. Like many singers, her Italian is better than her French. It was a real pleasure to hear a song by the Australian composer Calvin Bowman (b. 1972) who has what is all too rare today – a genuine melodic gift. I enjoyed particularly the long excerpt from Thomas’s Hamlet, rarely heard now. The recording itself is not completely successful. As on many CDs today, both orchestra and singer lack proper ambience; the performance seems to be taking place in some never-never land and the orchestra is frequently blatant. Emma Matthews’ voice has an occasional shrillness which I don’t recall hearing in…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VIVALDI The Four Seasons (piano: Jeffrey Biegel)

Why? His answer may well be “Why not?” After all, piano transcriptions of works written for orchestra or other instruments are very common and are often just about as interesting as the original compositions. Recently I heard a four-hand arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and marvelled at just how much of the original orchestration seemed still present – and how witty the arrangement was. This however seems very much a technical exercise, of interest maybe to home performers. But while listening, I kept thinking just how much richer the original seems by contrast. There seems little here to sustain attention – what it did do was provoke me to reach for my old but still favourite recording of the original, on period instruments, by Nils-Erik Sparf and the Drottningholm Chamber Ensemble (on the BIS label). Now, there’s a recording. Also included here are arrangements of Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C major and his Lute Concerto in D major. They similarly seem more technical exercises than something with wide appeal. There may be huge pleasure to be gained from playing these, but sadly, the recording process can’t cope with that sort of satisfaction.

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