For many composers the 20th century was an era of paranoia. For some, particularly in Europe, the paranoia was about survival. Mostly, however, the paranoia was aesthetic; after the fall of tonality all doors were open. Which notes to use? How many notes to use? Whose notes to use? When to use them? Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski developed his own very individual response to this problem with a technique he called “limited aleatorism”. Instrumentalists would play their own carefully notated parts in their own time and at their own pace, cued by a conductor, creating a spaciousness and depth that is refreshed by every performance. You can hear this in the two masterful later works on this disc, both from the 1980s. Chain 3 and the Symphony No 3 are inventive and free, their constantly shifting branches teeming with life. The much earlier Concerto For Orchestra (1950-54), Lutoslawski’s first big hit in the West, is a different beast. It’s colourful, clever and compelling, threaded with references to Polish folksong – but compared to the later works sounds at times a little academic. What frees it is its energy; the flourish of the dance (a remnant of the composer’s years as…
The first disc is the closest to the classic art song in style, allowing Anne Sofie von Otter to give full expression to these songs. Five are settings by Mehldau of poems by the early American poet Sara Teasdale, with one poem each from e.e. cummings and Philip Larkin. Von Otter invests these with plenty of rubato and emotion; this is her disc. The second disc shows more freedom in a light pop-jazz way. Although von Otter confesses she dares not try improvisation, she is able to cope easily with Mehldau’s mildly swinging approach to standards by composers including Richard Rodgers, Joni Mitchell, Lennon-McCartney, Bernstein and a group of French masters of the genre, including Michel Legrand and Jacques Brel. She does this by mainly observing rhythm and melody and lightening up the intense interpretative expression we heard earlier. Lightness is the key. It is a pleasant compilation, but one disc might have sufficed. The first grouping is not varied enough in mood to sustain interest throughout; the second disc never quite takes off into the heights of great singing or inspired jazz. Still, it’s a worthy first effort for these collaborators and next time around could see take-off.
Lovers of musicals usually fall into either the Broadway camp or the Lloyd Webber camp. The skirmishes between the two are frequent, bloody and pointless. It’s simply a case of incompatible sensibilities: Webber writes modern light opera (i.e. all dialogue is sung) with an operatic, often overblown sense of drama and pathos; Broadway shows traditionally interleave spoken dialogue with musical numbers, highlight the pizzazz of the performer and wield a sense of irony absent in Webber’s work. But even fans of Webber may be a touch disappointed by this double CD, in which many beloved songs are rendered as instrumentals. Starlight Express, The First Man You Remember and I Don’t Know How to Love Him are performed by the likes of cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and André Rieu.These instrumentals sound dangerously like elevator music. Fortunately, for the tracks that are sung, Decca has deployed some of the finest voices you could desire. Sarah Brightman tackles Whistle Down the Wind; Anna Netrebko sings the Pie Jesu from the Requiem; Renée Fleming and Bryn Terfel croon the enchanting duet All the Love I Have from The Beautiful Game. In short, there is one fabulous disc’s worth of music on this 2-CD set.
The energy emanating from this exciting disc and accompanying DVD of Indian traditional music is almost palpable. In concert, the Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan dance, contort and breathe fire, as well as singing traditional folk songs from the deserts and light classical songs from North India. Led by tabla player Rahis Bharti, the group is formed around a pulsating percussion base, with morsing (jew’s harp), dholak (drum), kartal (wooden clappers) and several tablas. Over this weaves the bowed, cello-like sarangi and the harmonium, introduced to India by French missionaries in the mid 19th-century. With several vocalists, their music is part of the lineage which includes the Sufi qawwali devotional singers such as the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The wedding song Banno excites with its pounding drumbeat; the tongue-in-cheek Rajasthani Reggae is an invitation to love sung over a loping tabla rhythm. Vocalist Sanjay Khan hauntingly sings of the Wind of Love over bowed sarangi strings before the short frenzied dancing finale of Horse Chale Rhythm. Like the musicians of The Manganiyar Seduction, the Dhoad Gypsies from Rajasthan keep alive a vibrant musical tradition.
Clint Mansell is the former frontman of UK band Pop Will Eat Itself and the composer of cult scores for Darren Aronofsky films Pi, Requiem for a Dream and, now, Black Swan. The soundtrack to this ballet thriller is a bold reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Mansell doesn’t quite have the musical chops to take Tchaikovsky’s score apart himself – but, with the help of arranger-conductor Matt Dunkley, he has concocted 16 tracks of atmospheric instrumental music which dance around moments of high drama in Tchaikovsky’s score. These are given rather silly names – Opposites Attract, A Room of her Own, It’s My Time – which relate to the movie, but say nothing about the music. Still, on the whole, this is an interesting undertaking – Swan Lake seen through a glass darkly. And Mansell has the good judgement and taste to let Tchaikovsky’s music speak for itself when necessary.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest picks up where the previous film left off – with Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) in hospital with gunshot wounds. Charged with the attempted murder of her father (she planted an axe in his head), she relies on her old friend and lover Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) to prove her innocence, to take down the authorities who conspired to keep her locked up and silent since she was 12 years old. There are Russian defectors, dodgy psychiatrists, courtroom antics and more. Containing none of the excitement or even the elegance of the first film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hornet’s Nest is cumbersome and way too long. Clocking in at 150 minutes, it’s as though the filmmakers were afraid to upset the book’s squillions of fans by condensing the narrative to make a more intriguing and enjoyable experience. The performances are all good and there are thrills to be had, but with the book being adhered to so closely there is little chance of getting under the skin of any of the key characters. If I hadn’t seen the previous films, or read the books, I would have been confused.
Review: PROKOFIEV Violin Concerto No 2 • RACHMANINOV Symphonic Dances (violin: Genevieve Laurenceau, Toulouse National Orch/Sokhiev)
Written in 1940, the Symphonic Dances was Rachmaninov’s final orchestral work. Regarded as hopelessly retrospective at the time, it has since been re-evaluated as a masterpiece. The first movement begins with a stamping, syncopated rhythm, alternating with a wistful lament from the alto saxophone. The second movement is a restless waltz that is never content to settle into a single key. The kaleidoscopic third movement closes explosively with the Dies Irae chant, a musical theme that haunted the melancholic composer all his life. Its central episode, a yearning chromatic passage for strings, is as far from the world of dance as could be. The work has been recorded often by more famous orchestras, but Sokhiev gives an impressive and thoughtful performance. His feeling for rubato is spot on. He is not afraid to slow down for lyrical moments, yet the underlying momentum is never sacrificed. Orchestral balance is excellent, and the woodwind soloists play beautifully. The unusual coupling of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto displays the same virtues. The slow movement’s tender melody is spun out effectively by Laurenceau. This young Strasbourg-born violinist made her reputation in chamber music. She plays the tough moments of this concerto accurately, but has neither…
Review: PAGANINI Violin Concerto No 1 • TCHAIKOVSKY Serenade Melancolique (violin: Midori, LSO/Slatkin)
Midori was only 13 or 14 when she recorded this account of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto and two morsels by Tchaikovsky, the Sérénade Mélancolique Op 26 and the Valse Scherzo Op 34. Yet the virtuosic demands of the first and last of these pieces do not daunt her; nor does she ever sound as if sheer virtuosity is an end in itself. These are satisfying performances with no allowance needed for her youthfulness. There is a technical drawback – but it is not hers. Rather, the primitive digital recording technology of the time (this recording dates from 1987) denies her the sonic richness which earlier analogue record producers brought to a fine art, and which today’s digital engineers have rediscovered. There’s a rather dry, clinical feel in the recording. It’s for this reason that Midori’s account of the Paganini, although a satisfying performance, can’t really supplant such fantastic earlier versions as the mid-1980s recording by Itzhak Perlman or (my personal favourite) the incandescent 1950 account by Leonid Kogan. It is, however, fascinating to hear the Paganini set against the two pieces by Tchaikovsky – the reflective Sérénade and Tchaikovsky’s own excursion into the wilds of virtuosity, the impetuous Valse Scherzo.
The 2nd and 11th are among Shostakovich’s least known symphonies. Chronologically they bookend Stalin’s reign in Soviet Russia, a period of great personal anxiety for the composer, which paradoxically produced his symphonic masterpieces (the 5th, 6th, 8th and 10th symphonies). Shostakovich was only 21 when he composed the 2nd, a relatively short work for chorus and orchestra. In its harmony, structure and technique it is pure 1920s avant-garde, but strip away the wailing sirens and shouting chorus effects and you’ll find a Soviet pot-boiler. There is a visceral immediacy to the work’s depiction of the uprising of 1917, but those qualities of ironic jokiness and despair that characterise his best music are entirely absent. By contrast, the 11th, which deals with the aborted revolution of 1905, is a vast orchestral canvas. Quoting revolutionary songs of the period, the work is drawn out in the manner of a Russian novel. Shostakovich’s audience knew these themes – the songs held deep significance for them – but that is not the case with today’s listeners. The composer’s expert use of the orchestra does not negate recurring episodes of stasis or bombast. It is best to approach this symphony as a monumental and dramatic…
Countertenor Bejun Mehta enters the increasingly crowded field of Handel recitals and triumphs with this engaging and exquisitely sung selection of arias and duets, many of them composed for the great castrato Senesino. Dark yet delicate in timbre, Mehta’s voice defies the common criticisms (or myths) surrounding the countertenor voice, displaying not only spectacular agility but a wealth of colour, superb dynamic control, and a steely strength which underpins the sheer loveliness of sound. But it is Mehta’s vocal acting which lifts this recital to another level. Be it in the exultant coloratura of Sento la gioia, the long, hushed lines of Stille amare or the militant staccati of Fammi combatere, Mehta teams technical brilliance with sensitive expressivity, capturing even the most broadly drawn Baroque emotions with touching sincerity. Collections of Handel arias are hardly thin on the ground these days – barely a month seems to pass without a few new additions to the discography – but Mehta’s rare combination of virtuosity and expressive acuity makes this recital one of the finest such releases in recent years.
Review: RODRIGO • GOSS • ALBENIZ Concierto de Aranjuez; Works for Guitar (guitar: Xuefei Yang; Orquestre Simfonica de Barcelona/Oue)
This performance of Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez is probably very different from what the composer ever envisaged or heard. He is on record as saying the guitar does not have great power. Here, through the combination of close-miking and committed performance, the guitar has power aplenty, but this is not just a display of brawn. In fact, under Xuefei Yang’s command, the lyrical second movement of the concerto has rarely sounded so intensely emotional and expressive. It is a phenomenal performance, and Yang’s sensitivity is matched by the playing of the Orquestre Simfonica and a warm, responsive recording timbre. Here too is a brand-new concerto for guitar and orchestra, commissioned by Yang. It is by Stephen Goss, entitled The Albeniz Concerto and drawn from Albeniz’s piano works. It is, on first hearing, a very appealing work, which will probably become a concert-hall staple for this fine Chinese guitarist. Yang herself is no slouch at such arrangements, and the recital includes her own very well executed transcriptions for solo guitar of several Albeniz piano works. Of interest to Australian listeners will be that the guitar she has chosen for the two concertos is a beautifully sonorous instrument made by Greg Smallman and…
Review: SCHUMANN Scenes from Childhood; Papillons; Fantasie Op 17; Novelette (piano: Stephanie McCallum)
Australian pianist Stephanie McCallum is renowned for tackling the 19th-century virtuoso repertoire. Schumann presents an entirely different degree of difficulty. Though by no means easy to play, his music also demands a high level of empathy. His three-movement Fantasie exemplifies the composer’s stormy marriage of form and content. In my opinion, the emotional aspect is already written into the notes: Schumann, like Chopin, does not benefit from extra rubato or exaggerated dynamics. Judging from this recording, McCallum feels the same way. Her gradations of tone colour are subtly judged, and discreet pauses in the music’s progress are never underlined. Nothing is over-pointed. This is true throughout the whole recital. No thundering out the Novelette’s opening deluge of notes for her! In the Scenes from Childhood suite’s best known movement, Traumerei, she plays the famous theme gently but still with youthful energy. The suite ends with a piece entitled The Poet Speaks, in which Schumann recollects his childhood from a mature vantage point. McCallum effectively deepens her tone in response. In the early suite, Papillons, McCallum’s textural clarity is a great asset. Recommended.
Giuseppe Verdi was not the most devout composer of his time, but in Italy he was the most popular. When Rossini died, Verdi set about organising a requiem in the older master’s honour. That project foundered, and Verdi’s Libera me found its way into his full Requiem, written in 1873 in memory of Alessandro Manzoni. From the start, Verdi’s Requiem was more about public than private grief. It is operatic in style and scope – indeed, three of the original soloists sang the leads in the European premiere of Aida. Some conductors try to emphasise the spiritual side of the work, but Verdi’s Requiem is a matter of blood and guts as much as life and death. The chorus’s doomed Requiem aeternam is suffused with the portent of high tragedy. The opening of the Dies irae, with its drum whacks and shattering minor chords, is as tempestuous as Otello’s shipwreck, while the mezzo’s Liber scriptus is direr than any curse hurled out by a gypsy fortune-teller. Muti, an opera conductor par excellence, understands this, and the Chicago Orchestra have a reputation for piling on the decibels when required. The soloists are strong, only lacking an Italianate warmth (apart from Borodina)….