January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ARVO PÄRT Symphony No 4

An early disillusionment with neo-classical and serial trends helped kick-start a radically minimal approach. This is the latest in a long line of Pärt releases on ECM. It’s difficult, then, not to measure it against his earlier discs, including landmarks like Passio and Tabula Rasa. In such company, I’m not entirely convinced by this album. It contains two relatively recent works, written a decade apart. The first, and more successful, is Kanon Pokajanen from 1997. It’s beautiful, classic Pärt – a smooth sound sculpture in which every contour is audible and every line counts. The text is the Canon of Repentance, an Orthodox hymn from the 8th century, sung in Old Church Slavonic. The singing here is gloriously full, transcribing the rich resonance of the Niguliste Church in Tallinn, Estonia. Pärt evidently took his time, spending an “enriching” two years writing it, and it paid off.The Symphony No 4 is a different matter. By its nature Pärt’s music is sparse; however, this piece seems in search of a core. It has all of his trademarks: pockets of sound balanced with silence; high strings; occasional pizzicato flourishes. Yet its greater purpose eludes me. Perhaps it’s the symphonic tag. Part’s previous symphonies…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUMANN Dichterliebe, Liederkreis (tenor: Werner Gura, piano: Jan Schultz)

The same is true, in a way, of great paintings, and of most Baroque and classical music. But there is something different about art song: while the works of the old masters now carry a patina of age, the stripped-back nature of the song-cycles means they have defied the years. On this recording, the words of the German poets Joseph von Eichendorff (Liederkreis) and Heinrich Heine (Dichterliebe) are brought to us with their freshness untouched by time. These compositions speak to us as a friend would in the most intimate conversation. Schumann’s songs of the joys of love and the anguish of unrequited yearnings are given a lucid and heartfelt reading by German tenor Werner Gura, who specialises in Lieder and oratorio. Although a tenor, he is reminiscent of the youthful Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – this is a light voice, never strained, and with a flexible baritonal extension. His accompanist Jan Schultsz (who is also a horn-player and conductor) is supportive at all times, but very much the partner. Everyone has their favourites in this repertoire, but this one is a worthy rival for the most celebrated Lieder recordings. A recital for the ages.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Lettere Amorose (mezzo: Magdalena Kožená; Private Musicke/Pitzl)

Having already conquered Handel, Vivaldi and Bach on recent discs, Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená is back in the Baroque yet again, but this time treading earlier and much less familiar ground. Lettere Amorose, her latest effort, is an esoteric and enchanting selection of vocal music by Monteverdi and his Italian contemporaries. These are songs, rather than arias: intimate and relatively simple in scope, and given luminous voice by Kožená. Rarities abound – nothing here could claim to be over-recorded – and Kožená revels palpably in the possibilities of this colourful and crucial musical era. From the tripping dance rhythms of Kapsberger’s Felici gl’animi, to Vitali’s silvery O bei lumi, to a vividly bereft rendition of Si dolce è il tormento (Monteverdi’s only appearance in the program), she is in superb form, remaining true to both the period and her own distinct, emotionally driven style. Another notable inclusion is Merula’s extraordinary (and extraordinarily long) lullaby Hor ch’é di dormire, in which Mary sings to the infant Jesus of his own crucifixion, accompanied by a ground bass of just two chords – a deceptively simple piece which Kožená sustains with devastating sincerity. Her opalescent timbre is well suited to this music, her…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Officium Novum (sop saxophone: Jan Garbarek; The Hilliard Ensemble)

Sadly I was forever turned off the soprano saxophone by smooth jazz superstar Kenny G. Not by his success – any instrumentalist who sells more than 75 million albums earns my awe, if not respect. No, it was his effortless frippery and shinily sugared tone that soundly nailed the coffin. Which brings me to that other soprano sax superstar, Jan Garbarek, and his latest pairing with The Hilliard Ensemble. On this, the second follow up to the phenomenally successfully 1994 collaboration Officium, they dovetail what they individually do best – liquefied saxophone improvisations and crisply sung early music – to create a gentle atmospheric fusion. The comparison that springs to mind is of a graffiti artist wandering through the Sistine Chapel and tagging at will. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for breaking down genres. No, it’s the slack aesthetic and overall lack of purpose that I have a problem with. On the plus side, the recording itself is superb. Like the first two CDs, it was recorded in a richly reverberant Benedictine monastery in the Austrian mountains. Likewise, I cannot fault the technique and expressivity – they are, frankly, sublime. It’s just that overall the venture feels inconsequential.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUMANN Davidsbündlertänze; Kinderszenen; Sonata in G minor (piano: Angela Hewitt)

Angela Hewitt has made a seamless and very successful transition from Bach to Schumann with her usual poise, precision, imagination and humanity. The Davidsbündlertänze are, even by Schumann’s standards, a poetic masterpiece. Hewitt is across every nuance, capturing the strangely off-centre melody of the first dance, the even stranger syncopation of the tarantella No 6 and the jolly polka of No 12 to perfection. In the penultimate number, Wie aus der Ferne (“As from afar”) the melody starts without a break from the previous section and then develops into a melancholy ländler. In Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”), sample the final section Der Dichter spricht (“The poet speaks”), savour the uniquely German quality of Innigkeit or “inner depths” Hewitt brings to this enchanting music. Time really does stand still here. The Second Sonata is more problematic. Although generally regarded as his best keyboard sonata, the form didn’t suit Schumann’s essentially dreamy nature and instinctively discursive expression. What some may see as excessive dramatic urgency I felt sounded more like relentless headlong impetuosity, although this is no reflection on Hewitt’s playing. The lovely song-like slow movement radiates a rapt tenderness. A lovely CD, beautifully recorded.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HALVORSEN Orchestral Works Volume 2 (violin: Marianne Thorsen, Bergen Phil/Järvi)

Johan Halvorsen was always an essential mention on any “one hit wonders” list of classical composers, known exclusively for his Entry of the Boyars. I missed Volume 1 of this series but I’m just as enthusiastic about Volume 2 as everyone seemed to be about its predecessor. Grieg himself loved these scores. Much of the music (Three Norwegian Dances, Air Norvégian and Chant de Veslemöy) features violin solos, delightfully played here by Marianne Thorsen. The second longest piece is the Suite ancienne, formed from entr’acts for the incidental music for Holberg’s (as in Grieg’s Holberg suite) play The Lying-in Room. It’s a skilful pastiche of 18th-century dance forms. My assessment of Halvorsen as a Nordic Eric Coates or Leroy Anderson was completely confounded when I heard the Second Symphony: it reinforced my amazement at how many seriously first-rate symphonies were composed by seriously obscure composers. This one is a little gem, with a recurring “fate” motive in all four movements (à la Tchaikovsky), a delicious oboe melody in the slow movement, reminiscent of the one in the slow movement of Bizet’s Symphony and a lovely intermezzo. All in under 28 minutes. An absolute winner!

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Britten, Ravel, Kleinsinger: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; Mother Goose Suite; Tubby the Tuba (Narrators: Christopher Lawrence, Marian Arnold, Emma Ayres; SSO/Northey)

As to Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, if there is a more radiantly beautiful piece of fairy tale music ever written, I doubt I’ve heard it. Musically, George Kleinsinger’s score for Tubby is very professional and works a treat. The American composer seems destined only to be remembered for this clever and delightful work, as we don’t hear much about his musical Shinbone Alley any longer.The Sydney Symphony Orchestra plays the Ravel better than it does the Britten (during which all concerned seem a bit indifferent). As there are plenty of excellent recordings for adults of this music, I assume the slightly patronising tone adopted by two of the readers is aimed at younger persons. Fair enough, though I would have thought such an approach a bit dangerous these days. Marian Arnold does “put on dog” a bit and even Christopher Lawrence, who has such a witty and droll radio style, seems less relaxed than usual. Emma Ayres is the most suited to her part in Tubby the Tuba, striking just the right balance. Conductors Benjamin Northey and Marc Taddei get their respective jobs done well, although I remain cool towards the overly reverberant recording of the Britten.

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Violin Sonatas Nos 2, 5,10 (violin: Alina Ibragimova, piano: Cédric Tiberghien)

Again, their readings are marked by a seemingly infinite variety of inflections, astutely calculated nuances and exquisitely judged tempi. Listen to the way they play the deliberately out-of-sync notes in the Spring Sonata’s tiny scherzo (all 81 seconds of it, displaying Beethoven’s rather tentative approach to the idea of the four-movement sonata!), or the delightfully delicate way they negotiate the finale to the Op 12 No 2, when the piano reaches the end one bar later than the violinist. Hilary Finch, in her excellent sleeve notes, writes of the melody in the first movement of the Spring Sonata as “irresistibly vernal, creative sap rising freely…” which makes the drama of the second half of the movement all the more effectively contrasted. For all these delights, my greatest interest lay in the Op 96, Beethoven’s last Violin Sonata. Unlike the symphonies, piano sonatas and string quartets, Beethoven’s violin sonatas did not penetrate his “late” period, so this work is as close as we get. Nonetheless, it’s still enigmatic: its opening trill always seems to come out of silence as the continuation of music which has already begun. The overall mood of the work is lyrical, with a delightfully spiky scherzo, realized…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Hear my Words: Choral Classics from St. John’s (Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge/Nethsingha)

For many, the hot ticket item will be Allegri’s Miserere, which opens the disc. The old Kings College recording set the benchmark with impeccable boy solo work. So it is a pleasure to say that the St John’s boys are in top form. Worth noting is the difference in style between the two famous choirs. St John’s evince a more robust sound. Grieg is represented by Ave, maris stella, which is a bit dull. Pärt’s brisker, O virgin, Mother of God, is welcome, and Rachmaninov gives us an entirely different reading of the same text, steeped in deep-throated Russian orthodoxy. Palestrina, Parsons and Tallis remind us of the austere world of earlier church music. Following the beautiful piety of these early composers, and especially the perfumed sweetness of Franck’s Panis angelicus and Fauré’s exquisite Cantique de Jean Racine, it is a relief to get to the engaging heartiness of Stanford’s Jubilate Deo. Vaughan Williams, John Rutter and James MacMillan are represented by O taste and see, Oh Lord, thou hast searched me out, and A New Song, respectively. Appropriately, Parry’s Hear my words, ye people brings this attractive collection to an end with a vigorous show of Anglican robustness. At…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Beau Soir (Janine Jansen, Itamar Golan)

The great names of French music leap out, and we are also tantalised by the inclusion of the famous name of Boulanger. In this case, Lili, sister of famous teacher and musicologist Nadia. Lili’s contribution is a limpid three-minute Nocturne with a passionate central section. Less well known is the Swiss composer, Richard Dubugnon, who Jansen tells us is heir to the French sound.And it is true; Dubugnon’s pieces are safely at home with his famous colleagues Debussy, Ravel and Fauré – so much so that it is not always easy to tell where some of their music stops and his begins. He has three works on the CD: La Minute Exquise, Hynos and Retour à Montfort-l’Amaury. This last was written for the CD and is the most vigorous of the three. Messiaen’s splendid Thème et Variations is from the same oeuvre as Quatuor pour la fin du temps. The composer ranges widely from intimate delicacy to an energetic, passionate vigour that forms the core of the work. Fauré’s Après un rêve, which follows, sounds as if it could be an extra variation. One of the larger works on the CD is Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, a fine…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TCHAIKOVSKY The Nutcracker (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Rattle)

Tchaikovsky’s ballets are the chick flicks of classical music, but like the best chick flicks they can be witty and reveal a light touch. The Nutcracker is crammed with memorable tunes and piquant orchestration – including the recently invented celeste in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – and shows the composer at the peak of his abilities in the famous point numbers of Act 2. The Waltz of the Flowers lilts as flightily as anything by Johannes Strauss. Right from the opening Miniature Overture we know we are in for some magic. Last year, Australian audiences got to sample the Berlin Phil in the flesh. They sounded impressive live, and do so again here. This is a lush orchestra, not a theatre pit band, and under Rattle they give a full-hearted performance. The conductor points and details the lyrical phrases, sometimes too indulgently, but his relaxed tempos never drag. The sound is good if a little dry, and rather light at the bass end of the spectrum. This is a double CD set, unlike Gergiev’s tougher, snappier version, but the extra outlay is worth it. Rattle’s discs come with a colourful booklet filled with beautifully reproduced costume designs,…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Debussy: Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra; Ravel: Piano Concerto in G; Concerto for the Left Hand; Massenet: Piano works (Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, BBC Symphony Orc

Ravel’s wonderful Piano Concerto in G continues to be one of the most popular in the concert hall and on record, but each time I hear it I am made aware of how difficult the perfect ensemble playing is to achieve. His Concerto for the Left Hand requires a different approach, for here the broad sweep of Ravel’s ideas are paramount. Mostly this is achieved in this excellent recording. Only the rapid-fire trumpets in the explosion of sound at the five-minute mark are lost. Bavouzet is at his eloquent best in the slower movements of both concerti. Debussy’s piece is a mixture of old and new, and although not top-drawer Debussy, it is a delightful work. This, and a selection of Massenet’s piano music, is what separates this CD from the pack. It is rare repertoire and unfamiliar to me. I think lovers of French piano music will be as delighted as I was. Massenet’s Toccata is a brilliant piece and although it predates much of Ravel, is very companionable. Deux Impromtus and Deux Pièces pour piano find Massenet in a more mellifluous mood. Finally Valse folle is quite rambunctious and punchy. Bavouzet plays all the music exquisitely. Never lacking…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Santo (tenor: Juan Diego Florez; Orchestra e coro del Teatro Communale di Bologna/Mariotti)

But after a series of solo discs which maintained this focus, and one charming excursion into South-American pop songs, Flórez has now hit upon a project which allows him to branch out: sacred songs. Seasonal favourites like O Come All Ye Faithful and Franck’s Panis angelicus jostle alongside music from Fux, Ariel Ramírez and even Flórez himself. It’s good to hear the tenor cast his net so wide; and yet, it has to be said, it’s still on home territory that he sounds his best – shiningly immaculate in arias from florid bel canto-era masses, soulful and relaxed in the Latin textures of Ramírez’s Missa criolla or his own song Santo, an upbeat guitar-based number which takes Rossini’s lead in making a solemn text sound jaunty. But the further he moves from his usual fare, the less idiomatic Flórez sounds – contemplative music like Comfort ye and Schubert’s Ave Maria need caressing by a more limpid voice than his bright, edgy tenor, and his delivery of traditional carols, though sincere, lacks gravitas. Nevertheless, kudos to Flórez for stepping beyond his usual bounds – there are better and more beautiful sacred albums about, but Santo is still a worthy addition to…

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