January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: GILARDINO Transcendentia: Complete studies for guitar (guitar: Cristiano Porqueddu)

The package contains detailed explanations of every one of the 60 studies by Angelo Gilardino, an Italian composer born in 1941, who also had a long and successful international career as a concert guitarist. You may be forgiven for finding that the written descriptions in the CD notes are a good deal more entertaining than the sounds you hear. The reality of what is played is dry as a bone compared to anything you read, so tantalising references to “Pink Floyd’s electrophonic music” (sic), ghost clarinets, barbarian drums, isolated drippings of melting crystals and homages to various composers and artists boil down to fanciful notions of what you might make of these solo acoustic runs if you give your imagination freedom to run amok. You will only find out anything about either participant from the brief, untranslated biographies. Full marks, true enough, for these pieces being exactly what they set out to be: studies, with none of the characteristics of sonatas or anything else that might make more sense to a non-specialist audience. Handsome as the box may be, unless you are a guitar ace yourself, you may find one of the CDs on its own is more than you…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HOLST A Somerset Rhapsody; Brook Green Suite; The Perfect Fool; The Planets; Suite No 2 for military band; St Paul’s Suite; Egdon Heath; Hymns from the Rig Veda; A Choral Fantasia (Janet Baker;

The Neptune movement is conspicuously faster than in his earlier EMI version, but without sounding in any way perfunctory. Mercury also whips along. Boult is not the only conductor to distinguish himself: André Previn and the LSO, during their halcyon days, turn in a wonderful performance of the ballet music from his failed opera The Perfect Fool, alternately boisterously rollicking and ethereally magical. But if I had to nominate one work to hear on this masterly anthology, it would be Egdon Heath, subtitled “Homage to Hardy”. In the almost continuous soft playing, Previn and co. evoke perfectly the sense of haunting loneliness in the place Hardy himself described as “singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony.” The other discoveries are three of the Sanskrit hymns the composer set from the Rig Veda, which make me wonder whether any other composer “does” the mystical and otherworldly as well as Holst. Sir Charles Groves, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Norman Del Mar and Imogen Holst also make valuable contributions to this invaluable collection.

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Virtuosi Tasmania in Concert with Annalisa Kerrigan (soprano: Annalisa Kerrigan; Virtuosi Tasmania)

Acoustically, the sound confirms we are in authentic locations, but without an audience. The violins come off well enough, but the larger instruments (one cello, one double bass) sound too far removed to have much in the way of a grounding effect, so the overall impact is a touch deflated. The players could all do with a bit more elbow room. Kerrigan, her voice strong for a soprano, comes from something like middle distance. The balance between her and the other performers may be struck more by virtue of their relative strengths and how far their sounds effectively have to carry. Nevertheless, Kerrigan and the ensemble do make a good-sounding team. The selection and mix of tracks work well, with room left on the disc to have added one or two extra pieces. The minimal CD notes are informative enough to still be useful. While the hum of an audience attending a full live performance may have helped complete the ensemble’s presentation, the CD does what it sets out to do. It lets us appreciate how Virtuosi Tasmania sounds in typical concert style, and sense a distinct charm that makes future releases worth listening out for.

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Violin Sonatas No 3 in E flat; 9 in A (Viktoria Mullova, piano: Kristian Bezuidenhout)

Beethoven’s Sonata No 3 was written in 1798, when Beethoven was 27. Already, the composer’s tendency to make the two instruments equal partners was well established. Part of a set, Beethoven dedicated them to his teacher, Salieri. This sunny work contrasts with the seriousness of the Kreutzer. Unusual for the time, the work begins with the violin. One can only imagine the audience reaction at the premiere. The piano enters, and the two instruments seem to square off as if workingout a way of proceeding. Then suddenly, it’s on, and the movement erupts with fierce energy. At the time of the Kreutzer’s composition in 1803, Beethoven was aware of his increasing deafness: the battle in the first movement could reflect this. At 36’, it is a demanding and engrossing work. The recording is excellent and the performances are lively and committed. In the notes, Bezuidenhout makes a persuasive case for the fortepiano, citing the familiar arguments about timbre, speed of audio decay and so on. One must respect the research, up to a point. Some years ago, when challenged over the new passion for the fortepiano, a prominent academic loftily observed, “You’ll get used to it”. Perhaps, but to my…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Violin Sonatas No 3 in E flat, Op 12; No 9 in A, Op 47, Kreutzer (Viktoria Mullova, Kristian Bezuidenhout)

Beethoven’s Sonata No 3 was written in 1798, when Beethoven was 27. Already, the composer’s tendency to make the two instruments equal partners was well established. Part of a set, Beethoven dedicated them to his teacher, Salieri. This sunny work contrasts with the seriousness of the Kreutzer. Unusual for the time, the work begins with the violin. One can only imagine the audience reaction at the premiere. The piano enters, and the two instruments seem to square off as if workingout a way of proceeding. Then suddenly, it’s on, and the movement erupts with fierce energy. At the time of the Kreutzer’s composition in 1803, Beethoven was aware of his increasing deafness: the battle in the first movement could reflect this. At 36’, it is a demanding and engrossing work. The recording is excellent and the performances are lively and committed. In the notes, Bezuidenhout makes a persuasive case for the fortepiano, citing the familiar arguments about timbre, speed of audio decay and so on. One must respect the research, up to a point. Some years ago, when challenged over the new passion for the fortepiano, a prominent academic loftily observed, “You’ll get used to it”. Perhaps, but to my…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: KHACHATURIAN Piano Concerto, Violin Concerto (piano: Christina Ortiz, violin: David Oistrakh; LSO/Khachaturian; LPO/Boult)

The excerpts from Spactacus and Gayenah conducted by the composer himself with the London Symphony in its palmy days not long before his death, bring these two scores with their heady exoticism to life. The Concertos are a different story. Neither has ever become mainstream repertoire, despite the advocacy of the seriously underrated pianist Mindrew Katz and the peerless David Oistrakh in the Violin Concerto, in which he apparently had serious input. In the Piano Concerto, Katz invests this often racketty score (replete with phoney orientalisms) with genuine poetry, and the lyrical episodes are well handled by Boult in acceptable 1950s sound. Where the work momentarily comes unstuck is in the disastrous inclusion of the flexatone, a kind of musical saw, wisely omitted from Willaim Kapell’s recording. Unlike the theramin in Miklos Rosza’s score to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, where it adds to the sinister ambience, the flexatone sounds like a demented audience member whistling along. The Violin Concerto benefits similarly from Oistrakh’s virtuosity and imagination. For me, the most interesting work in the set is the Suite from the 1942 ballet Masquarade, based on Lermontov’s reworking of the Othello story, where Khachaturian’s sardonic portrait of Leningrad society could almost have been…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: LIGETI String Quartets 1, 2; Lux Aeterna; Ramifications; Choral works; Six Bagatelles (Artemis Quartet; Chamber Orchestra of Toulouse/Auriacombe; Barry Tuckwell Wind Quintet; Groupe Vocal de France)

That said, there’s no denying much of his music is extremely avant-garde, and much of this two-CD set could hardly be described as Ligeti’s “greatest hits”. The first CD is dedicated to the String Quartets Nos 1 and 2. The first is a multi-faceted work in 12 movements, none longer than three minutes, with a prestissimo surely inspired by that in Beethoven’s Op 131 Quartet. I found it fascinating, although a cynic might conclude that none of the movements hangs around long enough to become either intimidating or deeply incomprehensible. Just think of the intense abstraction of Bartók’s quartets, taken one step further. The pizzicato of the Second Quartet is particularly ingratiating. The Artemis Quartet is brilliant, with diamond edge precision throughout. The Ramifications for twelve string instruments and the Six Bagatelles for wind instruments (with Barry Tuckwell’s French horn) are witty and accessible. The second CD comprises the Lux Aeterna, which gained momentary exposure in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but most of the vocal fare is obscure and often sounds overwrought, despite the superb attack, ensemble and intonation of the Groupe Vocal de France. One for Ligeti aficionados only, I imagine.

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Violin Concertos Nos 3, 5, Sinfonia Concertante (violin: Richard Tognetti, viola: Christopher Moore; ACO)

Committing themselves to filling an entire CD with music composed only by Mozart inevitably has an air of strategy about it, as the ACO moves forward through its six-disc collaboration with BIS. This one should certainly keep the deal sweet, even if purchasers come to it knowing or caring little about which label they are buying into. The content and the quality of this performance are all they need to hear. These two violin concertos represent Mozart only just moving out of his teens, at a creative high point. He would soon be ready to start thinking about how his future might unfold if he were to change his lowly status under patronage in Salzburg for the lure of independence in Vienna – or perhaps he had already taken the plunge. As if in belated reply, Tognetti takes his ensemble eagerly through the challenge of giving the young master as much of an encouragement as he might ever have hoped for. This engrossing performance balances precisely the articulation of each individual player with the overall impact of the sound produced by the group as a single unit. Clarity and luminescence bring every note to life, the lightest of trills, the…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Stravinsky, Revueltas: The Rite of Spring, La Noche de los Mayas (Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra/Dudamel)

Performances of The Rite of Spring don’t get much better than this. If the words astounding and dazzling seem a bit rich, then let me go further by adding that this remarkable youth orchestra is the result of an astonishing new approach to teaching classical music. This new approach, El Sistema, comes from a most unpredictable source – the slums of Venezuela. And I quote: “In 1975, Venezuelan economist and amateur musician José Abreu founded Social Action for Music. Abreu has dedicated himself to a utopian dream in which an orchestra represents the ideal society, and the sooner a child is nurtured in that environment, the better for all.” El Sistema has been a huge success with over 30 orchestras in Venezuela, creating a revolution in classical music education. In many cases it has lifted poverty-stricken youngsters out of lives of crime and despair. I knew nothing about Gustavo Dudamel when I first saw him in London a few years ago. After just two concerts with the Philharmonia, I knew (along with anybody else who was in the hall) that a great conductor was emerging before our eyes. A graduate of El Sistema, he is now the musical director of…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: LEIGHTON Orchestral Works Volume 3 Symphony No 1; Piano Concerto No 3 Concerto Estivo (piano: Howard Shelley; BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Brabbins)

Much like other British composers Edmund Rubbra and George Lloyd, Leighton published his first symphony (1963-4) in the face of the orthodoxy of the time, which considered the symphony a spent and irrelevant art form. Leighton wrote: “The idea of a symphony is still valid… it is often a work to which the composer attaches particular importance and is usually meant to be a particularly personal document”. Indeed! The First Symphony is very powerful in an engagingly edgy, Age of Anxiety way, with a dark first movement which begins with echoes of Sibelius’s Fifth and gradually intensifies the tension. While the scherzo is frantic and marginally outstays its welcome, the final movement starts very coolly, the piece ending quietly and equivocally. I found it absorbing. Despite my best efforts, I could find no references or influences from other composers, indicating that Leighton quickly found his own voice and I would have no hesitation in recommending it to even conservative palates. I can’t wax quite so enthusiastically about the Piano Concerto No 3 Concerto Estivo. At 37’ it’s rather long, and not even the advocacy of Martyn Brabbins, sans pareil in this repertoire, nor the artistry of Howard Shelley, who, I’ll…

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MASSENET Don Quichotte (singers: Berganza, Van Dam, Fondary; Orchestra and Chorus of the Capitol of Toulouse/Plasson)

Massenet composed this in his mature years and although in 1910 it gave him his last great success, his Don fell out of favour as the aggressive, modern new century got into full stride.Yet it is a tremendous work, full-blooded and exciting, with ravishingly beautiful entr’acte passages and sensitive vocal writing. As in the ballet, Massenet fleshes out the character of la belle Dulcinée, the village maiden who captivates our tragic Don. In the book she remains just a part of his noble but flawed imagination, with no more reality than the windmills at which he tilts. Teresa Berganza carries off the role with a sensual lushness, and José Van Dam is the very model of our noble but befuddled Don. This recording, from the earliest years of the digital era, does not quite capture the brilliant immediacy of the slightly earlier analogue set on Decca from Richard Bonynge, but that is more a comment on the limitations of early digital recordings than on the performances. Sadly, this 2-disc set does not come with a libretto. There is a third disc which lets you read the libretto on your computer, but that is a poor substitute for the real thing….

January 13, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Mixed Dozen: A Selection of Music for Trumpet and Piano (trumpet: Paul Goodchild, piano: David Miller)

The Spanish title has theatrical associations; the work’s formal opening giving way to a livelier section in which the soloist is seriously tested. Paul Goodchild passes with flying colours. From the same period are sonatas by Martinu and Hindemith. Even in an intimate work such as the Sonata, Hindemith’s stern style is on show, the musical responsibilities shared equally between the two musicians. Goodchild’s poetic side can be heard in the lovely Choral, La Vieille Année s’en est Allée by Pierre Max Dubois. Bernstein’s Rondo for Lifey, which follows, is in perky contrast. In a similar vein, Ibert’s Impromptu has a jaunty feel to it. Australian composers are also well represented.  Mathew Hindson’s Ignition: Positive is a study in contrasts. The slow opening gives way to a raunchy and engaging finale. Fellow Australian Alan Holley contributes a set of six ruminative, unaccompanied pieces. The recording is first-class and Greg Keane’s notes are stylish and informative.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Tchaikovsky, Liszt: First Piano Concertos (Alice Sara Ott; Münchner Philharmoniker/ Hengelbrock)

 Both are hugely popular and despite bursts of enjoyable vulgarity, both are terrific. There are also more good recordings of them than one can count, to say nothing of the dodgy ones. The Munich orchestra on this disc plays with great style and elegance. Ms Ott, who hails from Munich, is on top of the demanding scores. Her approach to the Tchaikovsky is dreamier than most, which is no bad thing, especially in the divinely beautiful slow movement. Even in the scherzo-like second section of the movement she maintains this lightness. Conductor Hengelbrock attends with equal sensitivity. It is their approach that distinguishes this version of the work. The performance of the first movement, just before the cadenza in particular, becomes a bit stodgy. In fact, at the risk of running to cliché, one could say that these are very German performances. As a pianist-composer, Liszt set the bar high, and few attempted his rambunctious concertos whilst he was in town. Listening to it now, a unified one-movement work, we would hardly credit that it took the composer 26 years to finish. German horns are in a class of their own, and they sound very fine at the beginning of…

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