August 23, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: LISZT: Sonata in B Minor; Piano Works (Khatia Buniatishvili)

The works in this program were composed after Liszt abandoned the life of a touring virtuoso and settled in Weimar. There, in Goethe’s city, he composed his Faust Symphony, and a Faustian program has sometimes been attributed to his Piano Sonata. The 23-year-old Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili would agree. In her liner notes she finds parallels with Faust throughout the program. Yet while her writings suggest that all you need to master this music is a metaphysical context, she neglects to mention the physical side (probably through modesty). Buniatishvili’s technical prowess enables her to combine energy with precision at a level comparable to Argerich – indeed this is the most exciting debut performance of the Liszt Sonata since Argerich recorded it in 1960. Her intellectual rigour also allows her to plot the mercurial changes of pace, weight and speed that are built into its structure. Her allegros are imbued with Faustian recklessness. Her Liebestraum radiates a purity associated with Marguerite, while her Mephisto Waltz has power but also a light touch that can only be labelled Mephistophelian. She has two attributes necessary for a Lisztian: she never bangs the piano in double fortes, and she makes everything sound if not…

August 23, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BRAHMS: Violin Sonatas (Jack Liebeck; Katya Apekisheva)

Listening to this disc, it’s clear why the three Brahms violin sonatas are so beloved by violinists: they comprise some of the most beautiful writing committed to manuscript for the instrument. So persuasive is this account by young British violinist Jack Liebeck that it’s hard to tell who is gaining the fullest pleasure – the performer or listener. Which is of course as it should be. The First Sonata was penned in 1879 when the composer was in his mid-40s. He then waited seven years before composing the final two. All three works are brimming with melodic and rhythmic riches – while the first two sonatas spill over with sun-suffused beauty, the third has noticeably more complex drama and emotion at its base. This does not mean that the first two do not carry profound passages; the First Sonata’s Adagio for instance is one of the most intense movements in Romantic musical literature. It is the favourite of many violinists, and it’s interesting to note that in fact this may have been Brahms’s least favourite. “Play it once”, he told a friend. “More it does not deserve…” These works would serve as a perfect introduction to Brahms’s chamber music. They belie the fact that…

August 17, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Metropolis: Original motion picture score (Berlin Radio Orchestra/Strobel)

It is easily forgotten that silent movies were never silent. In classier cinemas one usually found an orchestra of indeterminate size scrabbling furiously in pursuit of the villain, or sympathetically setting the mood for a love scene. Even in smaller establishments there would be at least a pianist banging away.  For the most significant films, a full score would be commissioned, and a few of these rarities were so good that they have survived to the present day. Gottfried Huppertz’s score for Metropolis, written in 1927 to accompany the dazzling film by Fritz Lang, is one such example. The useful notes that accompany the CD give us a story of the scrupulous way in which Huppertz approached his job, including visits to the set during filming. Only with the discovery of the missing 20 minutes of footage in 2008 has the fully restored film and its score been rehabilitated.  Interest in the film was rekindled in 1983 when Giorgio Moroder released a partial restoration with a rock score he himself had composed with a little help from his friends, including Freddie Mercury of Queen. Whatever the merits and curiosities of that version, the original 1927 score is a fascinating cultural…

August 17, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonatas vol 3 (Alina Ibragimova; Cedric Tiberghien)

Tiberghien and Ibragimova maintain the wonderful synergy of their two previous albums in the final instalment of this riveting series. As with the others, it’s a challenge as to which of the countless felicities to mention first. The fluctuating dynamics are as good a point as any: Beethoven dubbed these works, in effect, piano sonatas with violin accompaniment (like Mozart’s) and the pair acknowledge this throughout, with long passages where the piano is rightly dominant. The three sonatas are well contrasted: the playful and witty Op 12 in E flat with its variable pulse in the first movement is perfectly captured by the pair, the rather banal theme (described as “dim-witted” in the liner notes) of the final movement completely transformed by the magic of their partnership. The Op 30 A-major Sonata is deliciously suave and Tiberghien is dominant in the slow movement, with Ibragimova reticent and the pianist dispatching the demanding variations of the last movement with panache. The series ends, appropriately, with the mighty Kreutzer sonata, perhaps the only work in this genre with the sense of drama and power we take for granted in Beethoven’s music. Here, Ibragimova is amazing: she may look gamine but her tone…

August 17, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEAUTY OF THE BAROQUE (soprano: Danielle de Niese; English Concert/Harry Bicket)

A celebration of the English, Italian and German Baroque? Or a celebration of one of Decca’s most marketable sopranos? It would be lovely to say this album was both. But the beauty of this repertoire has been brushed aside to make room for an underwhelming diva showcase. Danielle de Niese’s breathy, pop-inflected delivery, lazy diction and apparent disregard for both text and context do this music scant justice. Ombra mai fu, Dido’s Lament and Sheep can safely graze all receive saccharine, underpowered treatment with a shockingly pinched upper register for such a young singer. The relentlessly slow-and-ethereal vibe of the album does de Niese no favours either, highlighting as it does her one-size-fits-all approach. Occasional coloratura passages liven up proceedings slightly, but are not stylishly handled. Her voice is not fundamentally unattractive – indeed, there’s a certain prettiness to it which, coupled with her lithe stage presence and certain genetic blessings, has gained her a large and devoted following – but her singing here fails to live up to the promise of the album’s title. The English Concert plays well, but with only marginally more vibrancy than its soloist. The only person to emerge triumphant here is guest artist Andreas Scholl.

August 17, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ROSS EDWARDS: Heart of Night (Diana Doherty; Riley Lee; David Thomas; MSO)

Within seconds you recognise the voice, the unmistakable hypnotic undulations of one of our most frequently performed composers. Ross Edwards’ mature style began with a concerto, the ebullient Piano Concerto of 1982, and like his teachers Richard Meale, Peter Maxwell Davies and Peter Sculthorpe he has since embraced the key structures of Western classical music with enthusiasm. The recent Edwards oeuvre is dense, with multiple symphonies, string quartets and many concertos. This disc features three works in the latter genre for clarinet, oboe and shakuhachi, each written for and performed by principals from major orchestras (Diana Doherty and David Thomas) and notable soloists (Riley Lee). Each concerto is extremely well written, masterfully balancing slippery virtuosic solos with understated chamber-like orchestral writing. They are languid yet optimistic in character, their gentle edges unfolding effortlessly. Which is where I start to feel frustrated: there’s so little bite. Edwards has perfected his approach to such an extent he risks becoming a well-oiled machine, unlike the harsher, more intangible composer of the 1970s for whom nature remained a mystery and metaphysical questions couldn’t yet be answered. It’s not about pace: even the glacial First Symphony of 1991, reflecting anxiously on war and mortality, stepped…

August 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RACHMANINOV: Piano Sonatas Nos 1-2 (Leslie Howard)

It is hardly surprising that the Australian-born Leslie Howard has been typecast as a Liszt pianist: he recorded the Hungarian master’s complete piano works on 99 CDs. It is therefore interesting to hear him in other music, even if it is not far removed from his specialty. The two composers were both known as phenomenal lions of the keyboard, but what Rachmaninov also requires is depth of feeling. The last of the great Romantics, his piano music is imbued with a distinctively Russian angst. A full, deep tone is required to express the melancholy in his slow music and the barely concealed savagery in his turbulent climaxes.  Howard meets these demands, and puts them to good use in the earlier D minor Sonata (1907). In this work there is a sense of the composer stretching his wings: his habitual use of sequential passages in place of development is rather transparent, especially as the melodic content is not all that memorable. Howard finds moments of pure tranquillity in the slow movement but strikes me as heavy-handed in the rhythmically charged finale. The B flat minor Sonata is more mature. An entrancing slow movement opens with Scriabin-like chromatic harmony and later incorporates…

August 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CASALS ENCORES (cello: Alban Gerhardt; piano: Cecile Licad)

The encore is an awkward ritual, but without it concertgoers feel cheated. The audience knows the artist is coming back; the artist knows it, but still we cheer and applaud, willing the performer to reappear. When our exhortations are rewarded, the artist pretends the little nugget they’ve kept up their sleeve is a spontaneous addition. But presenting a satisfying encore is an art in itself, and Spanish cellist Pablo Casals had an arsenal of compact crowd-pleasers for precisely this purpose. No doubt a disc of beloved encores once popularised by the most revered cellist of the 20th century – some in Casals’ own transcriptions – means big shoes to fill for Alban Gerhardt, whose faultless technique and singing tone make this an admirable tribute. The program’s balanced selection contrasts favourites with rarities, sparkling virtuosic display with the slow, expressive numbers that defined Casals’ encore style. Some of the most famous inclusions are weighed down by familiarity – Elgar’s Salut d’amore, Saint-Saëns’s The Swan and Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude languish most. As is often the case in concert, the most successful offerings are the most surprising. Boccherini’s Sonata in A major is the ideal showcase for Gerhardt’s breathtakingly elegant phrasing and crisp,…

August 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ELGAR: Piano Quintet, String Quartet, Piano Works (Goldner Quartet; Piers Lane)

Written at Elgar’s remote cottage during a period of autumnal repose for an ageing composer, the two chamber works on this disc let the latter days of WWI and the encroaching musical avant-garde pass them by, basking in the comforting glow of romanticism. Despite this isolation, the Quintet in A minor Op 84 has some extroverted moments and a restless vigour that the Goldner Quartet and Piers Lane capture with flair, well paced and never overly sentimental. The quintet expounds Elgar’s gifts in exquisitely wrought miniature – one marvels at the economy of gesture and mastery of form with which he articulates such emotional extremes. It’s every bit the Elgar we know and love from his symphonies and ceremonial works: rousing English anthems subside into melancholy-tinged reflection; then pure Nimrod in the stately elegance of the Moderato theme. Lane brings delicate detail to the fore even in the most impassioned outbursts – with Julian Smiles’ cello he gets to the heart of one standout recurring motif, shimmering and almost Impressionistic as it drifts like falling leaves. The Quartet in E minor Op 83 is perhaps more rhythmically and harmonically adventurous, the Goldners dashing off rapid passagework in the final movement…

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…