January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: KRENEK Sechs Motetten nach Worten von Franz Kafka (soprano: Caroline Stein, piano: Philip Mayers; RIAS Kammerchor/Rademann)

The story of a white opera singer and a promiscuous black jazz musician was a smash hit in Germany and abroad as soon as it premiered in 1928, but was banned by the Nazis as “degenerate art” as soon as they came to power. Krenek, an Austrian of Czech descent, composed several operas, though none was as popular as Jonny Spielt Auf. Krenek was forced to flee Nazi persecution to the USA in 1938, where he worked as both academic and composer. This disc collects examples of his choral writing before and after that move. The centrepiece is Sechs Motetten nach Worten von Franz Kafka from 1959, in which he uses serial-composition technique to glue together scattered slivers of text. The five other choral works (also featuring soprano Caroline Stein) range through his whole career, starting in1923 and tracing his developments through 12-tone techniques to serial. Many performances are a cappella; others feature the discreet piano of Philip Mayers. Despite quality performances, this is heavy stuff. Not only is there a very academic bent, but the music paints a relentlessly bleak world-view, where World War I and subsequent depression, the rise of Nazism and the horrors of the World War…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Symphonies Nos 39, 40 (Freiburger Barockorchester/Jacobs)

Mozart’s late symphonies are too often delivered with profound pomposity and reverence. René Jacobs and the Freiburger Barockorchester blow all the heavy accumulation of false tradition away. These performances must be very close to the musical textures of the composer’s own time, with the added benefit of today’s higher standards of musicianship. In a word, delectable. Many musical scholars believe the 39th and 40th are meant to be considered part of an orchestral trio, along with Mozart’s final symphony, the 41st – Jupiter. René Jacobs has already recorded the Jupiter, coupled with the 38th. But consider that disc later. These stand fine by themselves. They are enchanting performances, faster in tempo than some, and the final movement of the 40th is in particular revelatory in its deft sprung rhythms, although the fleetness does not prevent Jacobs from bringing out properly weighted moments of contrast. The disc is stamped with authority, from both conductor (whose Marriage of Figaro is one of my favourites) and the ensemble. If this disc does not supplant my absolute favourite recordings, from Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, that is perhaps as much to do with sentimental attachment as with absolute musical judgement. This recording certainly stands…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No 8 (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Petrenko)

Another milestone in Vassily Petrenko’s magisterial Shostakovich Symphony survey with this cracking Eighth, a work rapidly gaining stature as the equal of the Fifth and Tenth. Petrenko’s timing in the opening movement, 25’, is splendidly central (although this is by no means a middle of the road performance). Mark Wigglesworth, a fine Shostakovich interpreter, takes 29’ and the equally fine Oleg Caetani takes 20’, proving there’s more than one way. The latter three movements – allegretto (actually a scherzo), largo (essentially a ghostly passacaglia) and a second allegretto ­– fascinate me as superb examples of emotional ambiguity. These are equal, I think, to anything in Mahler. The playing throughout is magnificent and it’s obvious conductor and orchestra have developed a spectacularly effective synergy. All sections acquit themselves nobly (this is not a work which tolerates any orchestral “passengers”) but the woodwinds in particular (rapid flute trills) convey that sense of bleakness unique to Shostakovich. The ambiguity intensifies in the last movement as repeated “attempts” to lighten the mood come to nothing, unable to prevent a central traumatised paroxysm. The beautifully paced final bars, with flute and pizzicato strings sounding like the breath ebbing from a dying body, are especially haunting….

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: DVORÁK Violin Concertos/Legends (violin: Richard Tognetti, Nordic CO/Lindberg)

The Dvorák violin concerto had a tortuous genesis. In 1879, Dvorák was commissioned to write it, and decided to dedicate it to the great violinist Joseph Joachim, a close friend and musical adviser. Joachim was not happy with it. Dvorák tore up the score and started again. Revision followed revision before Joachim was finally content. Ironically, it appears that even though Dvorák spent more than two years on revisions, Joachim never performed the concerto in public. The publisher who had commissioned the work wasn’t happy either. He wanted a clean break between first and second movements, instead of the beautiful bridging passage which seamlessly links the two. Unlike with Joachim, here Dvorák stuck to his guns. The Dvorák has never become one of the grand concert hall staples, such as the Brahms or Bruch, Beethoven or Sibelius. But our own “living treasure” Richard Tognetti gives a persuasive argument here that it should be. It is a thoughtful piece rather than flamboyant, but abounding in lyricism and with the Slavic dance rhythms which mark so much of Dvorák’s work. Tognetti is in top form and his 1743 Guarneri del Gesu violin helps give this a true Kreislerian warmth. The ten short…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MENDELSSOHN Sonatas for Cello and Piano Nos 1, 2; Song Without Words for Cello and Piano (cello: Zoe Knighton, piano: Amir Farid)

Mendelssohn’s clarity of ideas allows you to immerse yourself in the instrumental strength of whoever performs them, and these two are not about to pass on their opportunity. They have great fun storming through some of the passages in the Variations Concertantes, for instance, and spiritedly negotiate the not altogether convincing whimsicalities in the second Sonata, which a more mature Mendelssohn may have been more inclined to put to one side. Had he done so, he would also have put aside some of what we might see as an attractive characteristic – the ability to find a way to deal with whatever makes life less tolerable. His was a world seen through the eyes of a very gifted young man. These rather less familiar works show us what the view was like back then, without revealing anything fundamentally unexpected in Mendelssohn’s developing musical vocabulary. The booklet notes might have benefited from a bit more information, but that is hardly a major objection. Not when you discover that the Sonata No 2 was partly written for Felix’s brother Paul. The original audience for these whimsicalities? In any case, hands up if you didn’t even know he had a brother? Overall, then,…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: A Year at King’s (Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Cleobury)

It is an eclectic mix, and all the better for it. Drawn from across the ages of great choral music, early works by Victoria, Palestrina and de Lassus are represented by Ascendens Christus in altum, Hodie Christus natus est, and Vindentes stellam Magi, respectively. More contemporary composers represented are Peter Phillips (Surgens Jesus) and Arvo Pärt. The latter’s Magnificat Antiphons is a glorious work. John Tavener’s setting of Away in a Manger is a far cry from the pious saccharine of the original. His setting is acerbic and almost aggressive. In 1967 Barber reworked his remarkable Adagio for Strings for eight voices. The effect is luminous. Videntes stellum, by his French contemporary Poulenc (a composer of many great religious works), is exquisite. The justly famous Miserere (mostly by Allegri, it seems) makes a great centrepiece on the disc. It is a test for the trebles in any boy’s choir, and evidence of how the sound of a boy’s choir can reduce the toughest bloke to tears. Under their long-time director, Stephen Cleobury, the singing is mostly excellent. However, the treble line is occasionally a little insecure. From the evidence of their recordings, this fine choir has had slightly better days….

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: STANHOPE Songs for the Shadowland: Vocal music of Paul Stanhope (Various)

There are too many ensembles and other individuals to list all of them here, but you will find names as familiar as those of cellist Daniel Yeadon, clarinettist Paul Dean, Cantillation and Gondwana Voices. Confidence is high, then, in the quality and integrity of these performances. The words they have to present are drawn from a number of writers, and in musical terms they sound fine. What the words actually are, though, is entirely lost en route from printed page to eardrum. Stanhope is mindful enough to give his music the structural cohesion to carry us across the waves of his sea, but whatever message he hopes to bring takes a dive. He refers to a variety of rather mystical sounding sources for his compositions, without being too literal about what he does with them. For instance, Aboriginal references in the title track do not mean we hear Aboriginal music. Rather, what we hear is a rhapsodic composition inspired by Stanhope thinking his Aboriginal thoughts. The result is a mix of classically-minded vocal ambience with hints of world music and a dollop of easy listening, which in themselves all work fine. However, if a shadowland is where he is headed,…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH Arias (bass-baritone: Teddy Tahu Rhodes; Orchestra of the Antipodes/Antony Walker & Brett Weymark)

The notes to this recording mention Johann Sebastian Bach’s predilection for using the male bass voice whenever a solemn note needed to be struck or when a figure of authority was invoked. Teddy Tahu Rhodes, the bass-baritone heartthrob of Australia’s opera fans, is now maturing into such a figure. Even the cover photograph for this CD shows a new Teddy – a dignified and wise personage rather than the glamorous, dashing Don Giovanni of his recent past. The 13 arias here are all drawn from Bach’s religious cantatas – there’s not a whiff of secularity to be found. They come from eight cantatas in all, with the Cantata BWV82 “Ich habe genug” presented in full. Teddy’s voice is impressively supple, given that the arias call on his strong bass rather than letting him rip with the more naturally flexible baritonal range. And he is given equally supple support by the very fine Orchestra of the Antipodes, which has been recorded with a very natural and immediate presence. Fine too is the support given in two of the arias by soprano Sara Macliver, while featured oboist Kirsten Barry shines in the final aria from “Ich habe genug”. Lovers of Bach will…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: STENHAMMAR Piano Concertos Nos 1, 2 (piano: Seta Tanyel; Helsingborg SO/Manze)

Rather, weighty two, from Sweden’s representative in the great dawning of 20th century music. Wilhelm Stenhammar’s powerful Opus 1 was not in fact his first composition. Perhaps he listened to the openings of his first few works, and selected this as the one that would most emphatically get his career started. An understandable selection, with a piece that retains enough connections to popular works by other composers to funnel off some of their excess interest, while establishing Stenhammar as a name to conjure with, mixing in sturdy ideas all his own. He uses no particular imagery, liberal with melody but sparing of sentiment, rambling widely without ever getting lost, following unpredictable paths yet always finding logically consistent destinations. Both works are sizeable enough to demonstrate Stenhammar’s ability to control orchestral forces on a symphonic scale, when they might easily unravel into dozens of loose ends. The differences between them seem greater than they actually prove to be, so while number 2 may be shorter and less obviously demanding, they are both exhausting to listen to, offering volume, loudness and might as primary virtues. Romantic music on the heavy side of the scales. Surprising it took Hyperion 49 goes to reach…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Celtic Viol (viol: Jordi Savall, harp: Andrew Lawrence-King)

Delve into the solid booklet to find your language of preference (obscure ones welcome), and read how these specimens of traditional music have been passed down through the generations, often unwritten. Read also how composers O’Carolan, Simon Fraser, Niel Gow, James Macpherson, and William Marshall wrote tunes that became folklore. There is enough reading material to keep you at it right the way through your simultaneous listening. Dividing the works into eight sections, based on the use of various instruments and tunings, serves an academic purpose, but more involving is the story shared by Savall and Lawrence-King that is your ticket to distant places and times. Their close examination and near fanatical attention to detail throws up a whole world of music with a naïve sophistication that is as good as a historical diorama presented in musical form. Be present as a condemned prisoner offers his air at the foot of the gallows; follow episodes from the life of Bonnie Prince Charlie; sway to reels taken to the New World by the first emigrants; and so much more. The longer you listen, the more you will find yourself rapt in this haunting enactment of bygone tradition played with such devotion.

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (NZSO/Judd)

The NZ orchestra plays competently but without distinction. The competition is considerable and everybody even remotely familiar with classical music knows it backwards. In the faster sections some of the strings are racing to catch up; the ethereal silkiness required to release the genius in the music is absent. The woodwind have a better time of it, their work in the scherzo lifting the general standard. The choirs and soloists are excellent. Setting aside the bargain of getting the complete score on a budget label, the appeal of this disc lies in the inclusion of sections of text from the play. Mendelssohn was devoted to Shakespeare, and so it is important to occasionally hear the music in context. It doesn’t make the music any better, but the connection is much more than simply academic. Emily Raymond’s Titania is the most convincing of the actors; she brings grace and style to the part. Tom Mison’s detached Oberon, on the other hand, sometimes sounds as if he’s reading it for the first time. Adrian Grove is characterful as Puck. The other actors vary considerably, often sounding arch in the way some actors do when performing “important” texts. Although the woodwinds sound clear…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TCHAIKOVSKY Three Piano Concertos; Concert Fantasia (piano: Stephen Hough; Minnesota Orchestra/Vänskä)

Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto is as much a portal into the classico-romantic landscape as Beethoven’s fifth symphony, or Grieg’s piano concerto. As a dedicated listener, you most likely have them burned deep in your consciousness, even if you forget which is which. Hough’s working now becomes the one that a new generation of listeners will go through life hearing as the very thing Tchaikovsky had in mind, no matter Hough being his millionth interpreter. Will anyone suspect the orchestra of being recorded at too high a level? A release like this would never be issued with any distortion. Would it? Hough holds nothing back, he can hardly afford to, seeing the industrious violinist sidelined without so much as a mention. A high-fives spectacle for the audience, with the treat for all of us now of having Tchaikovsky’s concertos resolutely nailed down in this one place anew. Transcriptions of two of Tchaikovsky’s songs tie off disc 1 as pensive solo encores, while the added extras on disc 2, alternative versions of the middle movement from concerto No 2, stem from Hough’s endless quest for ultimate musical truths. Such attention has helped him earn the reputation he enjoys today, along with that…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SHOSTAKOVICH 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op 87 (piano: Alexander Melnikov)

Shostakovich’s Op 87 represents an intellectual effort that harks all the way back to J.S. Bach, and Melnikov is happy to adopt an intellectual approach of his own in the way he addresses these formidable works. On the three discs in this set Melnikov plays all the notes you hear, writes the ones you read in the booklet, and answers questions posed by Andreas Staier on the DVD. He does all these things extremely well.He engages with Shostakovich as a figure deserving respect and appreciation from other musicians, eschewing the derision that some have levelled at Shostakovich for writing music they misconstrue as plain boring. If this package is up against any particular hurdle, it is most likely to be what comes across as its rather rarified approach to a composer other sources have been working hard to domesticate. This is not where you would turn to discover Shostakovich the composer of great music. On the contrary, Shostakovich was drawn to what might easily seem rather a creatively barren subject, yet one which was so important to him that he wrote the whole set in just three and a half months, sparing himself nothing in making full use of his…

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