January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Sonatas for fortepiano and violin (violin: Petra Müllejans; fortepiano: Kristian Bezuidenhout)

This, their first recording together, again features Mozart. All four works on this disc were written between 1778 and 1784 as the composer began to find his mature voice. At this time performances of works of this nature involved much improvisation. In fact, as Mozart wrote to his father, one such sonata (probably K.379) was completed so near its performance he didn’t have time to write out the piano part. It is this spirit of improvisation that Müllejans and Bezuidenhout have attempted to capture in this recording – and capture it they have. These are recordings of exceptional quality. Throughout, the balance between Müllejan’s violin and Bezuidenhout’s fortepiano is natural sounding and the co-ordination between them flawless and seemingly telepathic. More intelligent and informed performances would be hard to find and highlights abound. For example, in K.454 alone, there is the effortless transition from the Largo to the Allegro in the opening movement, the beautiful phrasing and finely judged tonal balance between the dampened fortepiano and violin in the plaintive 2nd movement and the delightful interplay of the Finale (Allegretto).Similar highlights can be found in the other three works on this marvellously entertaining disc. Unconditionally recommended.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Russian Masterpieces (cello: Zuill Bailey; San Francisco Ballet Orchestra/West)

As Tchaikovsky neared completion of his Rococo Variations for the German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, he gave a copy of the unpublished score to Fitzenhagen so that his dedicatee could check to make sure his cello writing was idiomatic. Fitzenhagen went a lot further and much to the composer’s chagrin, rewrote and reordered substantial amounts of the work. This, however, quickly became the accepted performing version. (Tchaikovsky’s original was not published until 1941.) It is the Fitzenhagen version that Israeli cellist Zuill Bailey has chosen to perform for this recording. Bailey is an excellent cellist with a solid technique who takes a straightforward view of this work that is, for the most part, highly successful. Only occasionally does the performance waiver, as in Variation 9, which would benefit from a much lighter touch. The Pezzo capriccioso and Nocturne in D minor (Tchaikovsky’s transcription of his Op. 19 Nocturne for piano) both receive workman-like performances. Shostakovich wrote his 1st Cello Concerto for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich who both debuted and recorded it in 1959 – this time with the composer’s approval! Unfortunately, Bailey’s approach to this concerto is much less successful; where Rostropovich’s larger-than-life personality takes Shostakovich’s myriad of ideas and styles and…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VIVALDI Juditha Triumphans (Pinchgut Opera; Cantillation; Orchestra of the Antipodes/Cremonesi)

This vocal master-work from Vivaldi is less than a decade short of its 300th birthday but here comes up fresh and sparkling, and with the zest of a teenager. Vivaldi, who we know best as an instrumental composer, claimed to have composed some 90 operas, but few are heard today. This work is even rarer. The liner notes tell us that as well as the operas, he wrote four oratorios. But Juditha Triumphans, based on a particularly blood-thirsty Biblical tale and described as a ‘sacred military oratorio’, is the only work to have come down to us. Judged by this sole work, the loss is ours. For the work is endlessly inventive, with some passages propelled by energetic momentum, and others paced like some peaceful inner reflection that ebbs and flows like our thoughts. The choral singing and the orchestral playing of Cantillation and the Orchestra of the Antipodes manage to combine forthright appeal with fragile delicacy when needed. And the five vocalists are beautifully matched, with contralto Sally-Anne Russell particularly affecting in the title role. The oratorio for the most part has survived, but its overture has been lost. In its place, the Orchestra of the Antipodes performs a…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MACMILLAN Seven Last Words from the Cross (The Dmitri Ensemble/Ross)

These seven sentences are immensely powerful statements with enormous dramatic potential. MacMillan’s setting is the most successful of all the above, and is rightly considered his masterpiece. His musical language straddles the modernist world and the holy minimalist world of Tavener and Pärt, but is drawn from the Celtic tradition rather than their Orthodox world. One striking feature of MacMillan’s writing is his torn-off statements that hang in the air during unusually long silences, which he uses so effectively in both the second movement “Woman, behold thy Son” and the opening of the last movement, “Father, into thy hands I commend my Spirit”. This is music that is truly heartbreaking. Most performances of it plunge the audience into floods of tears and if MacMillan had only written this work, his position in the lineage of English music would be assured (although he would remind people that indeed he was Scottish). The Dmitri Ensemble under Graham Ross are simply magnificent, the singing and playing are utterly committed and cannot be more highly praised. This is a masterwork of our time perfectly captured by a profound performance.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Emma Matthews in Monte Carlo: Arias and songs (soprano: Emma Matthews; Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo/Cohen)

This is the latest in a series of excellent CDs by Australian singers I have reviewed recently in these columns, the others being by Damian Whiteley, Yvonne Kenny and Deborah Riedel. As all Australian music lovers now know, Emma Matthews has a beautiful voice and a secure technique and, like many Australian singers from Melba onwards, an instinctive feeling for the right style in any music she sings. Here, she is completely successful in all she undertakes – from Proch’s music box Variations (without obliterating memories of Miliza Korjus’s remarkable record) to songs by Leonard Bernstein and Australian composers. Like many singers, her Italian is better than her French. It was a real pleasure to hear a song by the Australian composer Calvin Bowman (b. 1972) who has what is all too rare today – a genuine melodic gift. I enjoyed particularly the long excerpt from Thomas’s Hamlet, rarely heard now. The recording itself is not completely successful. As on many CDs today, both orchestra and singer lack proper ambience; the performance seems to be taking place in some never-never land and the orchestra is frequently blatant. Emma Matthews’ voice has an occasional shrillness which I don’t recall hearing in…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VIVALDI The Four Seasons (piano: Jeffrey Biegel)

Why? His answer may well be “Why not?” After all, piano transcriptions of works written for orchestra or other instruments are very common and are often just about as interesting as the original compositions. Recently I heard a four-hand arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and marvelled at just how much of the original orchestration seemed still present – and how witty the arrangement was. This however seems very much a technical exercise, of interest maybe to home performers. But while listening, I kept thinking just how much richer the original seems by contrast. There seems little here to sustain attention – what it did do was provoke me to reach for my old but still favourite recording of the original, on period instruments, by Nils-Erik Sparf and the Drottningholm Chamber Ensemble (on the BIS label). Now, there’s a recording. Also included here are arrangements of Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C major and his Lute Concerto in D major. They similarly seem more technical exercises than something with wide appeal. There may be huge pleasure to be gained from playing these, but sadly, the recording process can’t cope with that sort of satisfaction.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VIVALDI The Four Seasons Geminiani: Concerto Grosso No. 4, 12 (violin: Christina Day Martinson; Boston Baroque/Pearlman)

Performance awards nobody has ever heard of are commonplace, so let the listener listen and form their own judgement. Do period instruments make a difference worth worrying about? Boston Baroque should know, and would certainly say “Yes!” In no uncertain terms, being the oldest period instrument ensemble in North America. There is a difference, for sure, and hearing them in this performance for review involved an immediate adjustment to allow for what you might find rather a thin sound characteristic. Which is not meant to be a value judgement about thick being better than thin, just acknowledging the way this sound comes over. There can be no argument with the standard of any performance here, Martinson is undoubtedly a(nother) fine violinist. Geminiani at least is a relatively unknown composer, having been, like Vivaldi, one of the great violinists of his time, associated with Corelli, whose works he based his own on. If only Boston Baroque had done the brave thing, and given other less recognised composers their turn too, instead of tagging along some way behind everybody else. Surely the dream run of The Four Seasons must run out one day. Please?

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 10 in E minor Tormis: Overture No. 2 (Cincinnati SO/Järvi)

Paavo Järvi’s glowering stare from the cover of this CD reminded me unnervingly of Vladimir Putin, perhaps not at all inappropriately in this, Shostakovich’s “Stalin” Symphony, arguably his greatest. At almost 56 minutes, Järvi’s reading is one of the longest, yet there are no longueurs. In a work fraught with challenges – the 25-minute opening movement can easily drag without maintaining tension through its kaleidoscopic moods – Järvi is utterly convincing.  It’s clear he has consolidated the legacy of Jesús López-Cobos in transforming the Cincinnati players into a virtuoso ensemble. Does any other symphony, even Shostakovich’s, have such extremes between the sinister brooding and the euphoric? The manic passages in Järvi’s scherzo are truly and virtuosically vicious, but for me the most interesting movement was the andante third, where the sinister mechanical strutting and brooding is interrupted periodically by horn calls (cries for help or reminders that humanity still exists?) and Järvi handles both the end and the transition to the opening of the finale with woodwind playing of exquisite delicacy and phrasing. In the final climax, the orchestral textures and clarity are exemplary. The Overture No. 2 by the Estonian Veljo Tormis (b, 1930) belies its mundane title as a…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MENDELSSOHN Songs and Duets Vol. 4 (sopranos: Katherine Broderick, Hannah Morrison, mezzo: Anna Grevelius, tenor: Finnur Bjarnason, baritone: Stephan Loges, piano: Eugene Asti)

I have not heard the others and perhaps should point out that there are no duets on this particular CD. The songs on this disc date mainly from Mendelssohn’s teens and twenties and are an amazing revelation of his genius. The accompanist Eugene Asti, who assembled the songs, claims in his notes that none of them had been recorded before; some of them had remained undiscovered for 150 years. Both the vocal writing and the accompaniments are reminiscent of Schubert. Remembering that Mendelssohn wrote such masterpieces as the overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream and his Octet while still in his teens, it should come as no surprise that many of these songs are of high quality and would adorn any Lieder recital. They do not reach the same height as Schubert’s greatest songs, but many of them are equal to Schubert’s Lieder of the second rank. What is particularly interesting is the variety displayed in the composition of the songs. Mendelssohn never repeats himself and the vocal line and the accompaniments are always different and individual. All the singers are good musicians who meet the demands of the music and enunciate the texts clearly. Unfortunately, their voices are not…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Mozart Album: Various arias and works by W.A. Mozart (soprano: Danielle de Niese; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Mackerras)

She can sing! She can dance! She can act! But can she do justice to Mozart? The Mozart Album is a curious mix. It offers opera arias (including Susanna’s ‘Giunse alfin il momento… Al desio di chi t’adora’ and Despina’s ‘Una donna a quindici anni’), concert arias (‘Bella mia fiamma, addio!… Resta, o cara’ and ‘Oh, temerario Arbace!… Per quel paterno amplesso’), sacred music (Exsultate, jubilate), with the Don Giovanni-Zerlina duet (‘Là ci darem la mano’), in which she is joined by Bryn Terfel, thrown in for good measure. Given de Niese’s expertise with Handel, it is surprising to hear her struggle with some of the florid passages in Exsultate, jubilate, the CD’s opening track. The two concert arias, on the other hand, are more successful and provide opportunities for thoughtful and nuanced characterisation. Also successful is ‘Quando avran fine omai… Padre, germani, addio!’, Ilia’s opening number from Idomeneo. Mindful of her soubrette Fach, de Niese has sensibly avoided some of the peaks of the Mozart soprano repertory (the arias for the Countess and Fiordiligi for example) and settled for the charming and pleasant foothills. 

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Scenes and arias by Mozart, Wagner, Schubert and Beethoven (tenor: Jonas Kaufmann; Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Chorus of the Parma Theatre/Abbado)

Creating a good selection of arias is a bit of a Devil’s art. Making a selection work in relative terms, instead of simply being a grab-bag of favourites, has been very successful in this CD. Kaufmann has what all great tenors need, a darker tone in his lower register. Few tenors can cover the repertoire properly without this baritonal quality and Kaufmann has it in spades.  There is also a fine intelligence at work. A real plus in our pop-opera world where top Cs and triple fortes get many lesser talents over the line. Kaufmann handles the texts with the same intelligence he brings to his musicianship. Kaufmann dives into the heart of the German repertoire and the CD opens and closes with two of the most ethereally beautiful arias in opera; ‘In fernem Land’, from Lohengrin and the final scene from Parsifal. Between these masterpieces lie scenes from Die Zauberflöte, rarer arias from Schubert’s operas Fierrabras and Alfonso und Estrella; a thrilling ‘Winterstürme’ from Die Walküre and Florestan’s agonised aria to his love, Leonora, from Fidelio. It is an intensely moving and heroic interpretation and the performance is gripping. It is worth noting that this man differentiates effectively between…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The First Recordings (soprano: Dame Nellie Melba)

The sound was thrilling, but in reality, atrocious. And she fared not much better on CD. When, years later, I listened to some of the early transfers from historic 78s to CDs of early Melba material, I wondered just what the fuss had been about. Why did opera-goers of her time make Nellie Mitchell from Melbourne the biggest star on two sides of the Atlantic? The transfers had removed a lot of the scratches and crackle but what was left was still thin, even sour. Well, this new release is a revelation. This is a dub of newly-discovered 1904 metal masters struck from the original wax, which had been languishing unplayed in the Deutsche Grammophon warehouses in Hanover for more than 100 years. Not only are the recordings cleaner than any others I’ve heard, they are also for the first time transferred to CD at Melba’s proper pitch, not erroneously lifted as every other transfer has been. Here is Puccini’s Mimi, sung as Puccini himself taught it to her. And Tosti, Verdi, a very effective ‘Porgi, Amor’ from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and simple folk songs to complete a portrait of her repertoire. This is acoustic history made palatable. We…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9, Op 125 Choral (London Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus/Tennstedt)

Even the Adagio in Klemperer’s legendary account sounds resolutely dry-eyed and casual. Klaus Tennstedt had an Indian summer of justified adulation from both audiences and orchestras in Britain, Europe and the US after a life in former communist Germany, but his career was nobbled by inner demons and crippling self-doubt. This performance is partly a disappointment. The first movement is played straight with little light and shade and a distinct lack of involvement. The big cataclysmic moments simply aren’t big or cataclysmic enough. Similarly, the scherzo, shorn of every repeat, lacks the demonic quality with which Klemperer, superb here – with virtually every repeat – imbues it. However, in the adagio, Tennstedt is superb. At almost 19 minutes, he’s as slow as Furtwängler and just as profoundly moving, especially in the way he floats the sublime second subject. The finale is similarly fine at the other extreme, with one of the most energised readings I’ve heard despite not sounding at all rushed. The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus are in good form and the soloists are all fine. The sound, despite being recorded in the Royal Festival Hall, is also bright.

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