October 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BRUCH: Violin Concerto; Romance; String Quintet in A Minor (violin: Vadim Gluzman; Bergen PO/Litton)

It’s good to see the Scandinavian company BIS persevering with the high-end SACD format at a time when the majority of music buyers no longer seem to care about quality audio reproduction at all. This disc has three audio layers to choose from: SACD Stereo, SACD Surround and standard-CD. When played through a good system boasting SACD reproduction, it shows just what the format is capable of. The sound here is simply superb. The violin has its natural warmth with plenty of bite, and the detail in the orchestral sound is exemplary, revealing layer on layer. Of course, that would be worthless if we were listening to a mundane performance. This is anything but. Soloist Vadim Gluzman and the Bergen Philharmonic under Andrew Litton give a committed interpretation of Bruch’s First Violin Concerto, and we can understand from this fine account why the success of this work overshadowed the rest of the composer’s career.  The Romance for Violin and Orchestra is a pleasant enough piece, much like a stocking-filler at Christmas. But the rarely heard String Quartet in A minor is a revelation. Written in 1918 when the composer was 80 and near the end of his life, this is a vigourous, even…

October 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: THE BALLAD SINGER (baritone: Gerald Finley; piano: Julius Drake)

Anyone familiar with Schubert’s murderous Die Nonne (The Nun) or Mendelssohn’s frenzied Hexenlied will know the extremes to which a 19th-century composer might go in order to send shivers up the collective spines of his audience with a ghoulish musical yarn. But if an hour of such fare fills you with trepidation, fear not, for with Canadian baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake you will be in very safe hands.   This is a brilliantly constructed program of tales told through poetry and music, ranging from blockbusters like Erlkönig, a most deeply felt Lost Chord and ending with a razor-sharp Cole Porter ballad about a social-climbing oyster who goes down the wrong way with inevitable results. Finley is clearly a singer at the very top of his game – the voice always used with intelligence; full, resonant and flexible. I would be hard pressed to think of a rival today who could finesse these songs with such grace, nuance and sheer vocal acting. Drake is in his element as well, breathing fire or exuding pathos in turn.  Standouts include a hypnotic rendition of Edward, Loewe’s tale of patricide revealed, as well as a chilling Der Feuerreiter – Wolf’s ballad of the legendary, mad…

October 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHMITT: La Tragedie de Salome (Susan Bullock; Sao Paulo SO/Tortelier)

Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) was a contemporary of Ravel, Roussel and Dukas, and like them he wrote music for the ballet, including Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In the early decades of the 20th century his name was well known but his reputation suffered after the 1930s. The reasons were partly personal – Schmitt was a cantankerous personality and Nazi sympathiser – but also his richly orchestrated, fulsomely chromatic style fell out of fashion. The three works on this stunningly recorded disc are among Schmitt’s better-known. His ballet The Tragedy of Salome was written at exactly the same time as Richard Strauss’s opera, although the opera was performed first and its notoriety overshadowed the Frenchman’s score. The ballet is packed with “orientalisms”, cymbal-topped climaxes and disembodied melismatic sopranos. Big on atmosphere and beautifully played, the performance is subdued compared to the ancient Paray version (Mercury) and the white-hot performance from the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic (Onyx).  Psalm 47 is a setting of biblical verses for soprano, large choir and orchestra. It employs the same exotic palette, but here the prolonged choral fortes and relentless climaxes invoke the law of diminishing returns. A few calm moments, usually involving the excellent Susan Bullock, provide welcome respite….

October 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

The difficulty of producing a documentary about Glenn Gould’s life and his eccentricities must have been daunting. The filmmakers have managed it well without getting bogged down in the latter – the story weaves continuously between Gould’s remarkable music-making and his demons. The story is told through interviews with many of Gould’s contemporaries, including the recording crew at CBS, the record company that recognised his genius at his first New York recital in 1955. Their recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations made him an overnight sensation.  Many other famous stories are told, including that of Leonard Bernstein accompanying Gould’s performance of the Brahms’s First  Piano Concerto, and prefacing the concert with comments about the pianist’s right to his interpretation, despite being in disagreement. Gould kept the world guessing, never more so than when he gave up the concert hall at the age of 31. He hated giving concerts and hated the audiences – and gives his reasons. His increasing paranoia and early death at 50 has largely been blamed upon his addiction to a cocktail of drugs. Luckily, there is a great deal of footage of Gould in conversation and at work. It is here that the greatest value of the film…

October 6, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: GOUNOD: Requiem, Messe Chorale (Ensemble Vocal et Instrumental de Lausanne/Corboz)

In his day Charles Gounod was seen as a leading composer of religious music, turning out a large number of works in his productive lifetime (20 masses and four requiems, for a start). We remember him as the composer of Faust, once the world’s most famous and popular opera. He is less well-known for a rather weak-kneed version of Roméo et Juliette, complete with happy ending. If, as an opera composer, Gounod has faded, on the evidence contained in this excellent CD his religious music warrants reappraisal, even though, with its faint perfumes of a bygone age, it might seem more elusive to ears attuned to Poulenc and Fauré. This is especially true of the Requiem, though the Messe Chorale is made of sterner stuff and is a fine work. In an 1892 letter to a colleague, Gounod writes: “It is time for the banner of liturgical Art to replace in our churches that of profane cantilena, and for musical practices to proscribe all the mush of the Romance and all the sweets of piety which have for too long sickened our stomachs”. It is possible that César Frank’s 1872 setting of Panis angelicus was just the sort of soupy church music he was…

October 6, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUBERT: Die Schone Mullerin (baritone: Christopher Maltman; piano: Graham Johnson)

Wigmore Hall continues to share its bounties with this release, recorded late last year, of Christopher Maltman in Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin. Live recordings can be uneven affairs, but Maltman’s performance captures all the excitement of the concert hall and few of its drawbacks – his interpretation is cohesive, his voice vividly caught and unwaveringly fine, and the only audience noise of note is the deservedly vociferous ovation at the end. If anything, the live setting has caught a depth of spontaneous emotion which a studio might have dulled. Maltman’s light, silken baritone is arresting from the outset, in a Das Wandern of breathless, barely contained emotion. He maintains the first half of the cycle at a slow burn, singing so gently, and with such delicate top notes, that the eventual outburst of Mein! comes as a genuine and jarring shock. The sweet tone of those early songs is barely detectable in the acerbic anger of Der Jäger, and when it returns in Eifersucht und Stolz, seems to mock its own timidity. The young man Maltman portrays is a sensitive soul in turmoil, prone to explosive rage and tears, but whose delusions (and depressions) are more naïve than pathological. From its softest to…

October 6, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto Nos 1, 4; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (piano: Simon Trpceski; RLPO/Petrenko)

Rachmaninov’s four piano concertos are a classic example of the excellent being the enemy of the merely very good. When, in 1917, he came to revise his first youthful concerto (from 1891), the Second and Third Concertos had firmly ensconced themselves in the repertoire and in the affections of the public. The Fourth Concerto, composed in 1926, never had a chance: it had none of the fizz of Gershwin in its jazz-influenced passages and the main theme of its slow movement has a bizarre and unfortunate resemblance to Three blind mice! There are traces of the dreamy, sentimental, later Rachmaninov in both these works – and Simon Trpceski is excellent throughout – but they are either embryonic or truncated. In the last movement of the First, just as you think they’re about to burst into the BIG tune, the pianist scuttles off in a helter-skelter passage of presto fingerwork. There is real chemistry between Trpceski and Petrenko here, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic are on fire. I loved the brass attack in the opening chords of the First Concerto. Both orchestra and soloist are highly affecting in its slow movement.  I’ve left little room for the popular Paganini Rhapsody, but suffice to…

October 6, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN: The Warsaw Recital (piano: Daniel Barenboim)

For many, Daniel Barenboim is thought of primarily as a conductor today. But this album, recorded in Warsaw only last year, sees him back at the piano in triumphant form. This live recital spans a huge range of Chopin’s works, from his Fantasia in F minor to the Nocturne in B-flat major; the Sonata in B-flat minor, through Barcarolles, Waltzes, the Berceuse in D-flat major, and the resounding Polonaise in A flat major. It’s an all-encompassing tribute marking the 2010 bicentenary of Chopin’s birth. There are many idiosyncrasies in Barenboim’s reading – sometimes a playfulness with tempi and weight that make the listener hear a piece in a completely new way, or a thoughtful new interpretation of a phrase or interval. Only once, in what seems a wilful account of the martial Polonaise in A-flat major, does the interpretation seem at odds with the work – or at least, with the interpretations we are most familiar with. The recording reaffirms his position as one of the great pianists of the latter part of the 20th century and it is great to see his keyboard career extended into the new century in such a manner. This is a live recording, and…

September 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MAHLER: Symphony No 3 (mezzo: Bernarda Fink; Royal Concertgebouw/Jansons)

The hour was late, my day had been hellish, the decanter beckoned. Perhaps just a wee dram and the first movement. A few moments in and the Glenfiddich was forgotten. This is one of the greatest Mahler recordings and performances I’ve ever heard. The illustrious producer Walter Legge once opined that a conductor should build like a Moghul emperor and finish like a jeweller, and this is one of the elements which create the magic here: Jansons never loses sight of the gigantic scale of this symphony, while acknowledging and refining every detail. Tempos are generally slow and the overall timing makes this one of the slowest Mahler Thirds available. No matter! The playing of the Concertgebouw is not just beyond reproach – it’s beyond belief. The wilder sections of the first movement may lack the manic abandon of Bernstein, but the interchanges between the brass and woodwind are just one instance of the sensitivity and imagination that suffuse this account. Jansons’ rubato in the dreamy second movement is just as impressive and the offstage post horn solo in the third is equally magical. Bernarda Fink is beautifully poised in the fourth and fifth movements. The finale is often problematic, and a misreading often…

September 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Maltese Tenor (Joseph Calleja; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Armiliato)

It’s seven years since Joseph Calleja made his solo recording debut, and he’s still only 33 years old. The hype which attended the arrival of this wunderkind in opera’s top tier has settled somewhat now, but he has maintained his place at the top of his profession and avoided the burnout which too often strikes such early and feverishly promoted bloomers. The Maltese Tenor, Calleja’s third collection of mostly popular, mostly Italian arias, finds him in bright and healthy voice. Once greeted by some as the second coming of Pavarotti, it’s clear now that Calleja is not quite – or at least not yet – as exceptional as that, but his honeyed, Italianate tone is swoonworthy just the same, and his delivery is underpinned by a solid technique which bodes well for a long future. Gorgeous legato, rather than textual detail, is Calleja’s specialty. He spins ardent favourites like E lucevan le stelle and Donna non vidi mai out with impeccable lyricism and audible sincerity, but there’s still a degree of characterisation missing. Still, there’s burnished colour aplenty in Calleja’s ardent Quando le sere al placido, and infectious energy in Offenbach’s jaunty Légende de Kleinzach, and Massenet’s Des Grieux also brings out…

September 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Great Baritone Arias (Peter Mattei; Royal Stockholm PO/Renes)

From Mozart to Tchaikovsky to Britten, with a smattering of Wagner and Rossini along the way, Mattei dashes from one Greatest Hit to another with a versatility that’s almost galling. Comparisons are inevitable but for once, not odious; Mattei is a worthy heir to his illustrious predecessors, and the vocal and theatrical charisma which have made him such an audience favourite transfer remarkably well to disc. His honeyed baritone is as beguiling in Don Giovanni’s Serenade as it is devastating in Billy Budd’s Look! Through the port…, and he manages both Wagnerian legato and Rossinian coloratura with ease. Mattei’s madcap Largo al factotum must be one of the laugh-out-loud funniest on disc, and when it comes on the heels of a soaring, dignified account of Yeletsky’s Ya vas lyublyu (The Queen of Spades), it’s hard to believe that the same singer produced both performances. Or rather, it would be, were they – and indeed, every selection on this disc is – not unified by his sterling musicianship, vivid characterisation and seriously beautiful voice, all of which make Mattei such a distinctive artist. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, under Lawrence Renes, is an excellent partner in crime, particularly in the disc’s vibrant…

September 22, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN: Fidelio (Jonas Kaufmann; Nina Stemme; Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Abbado)

This live recording of Beethoven’s sole opera Fidelio is from the 2010 Lucerne Festival, under the baton of Claudio Abbado. Together with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Lucerne Festival Orchestra the succeeds in contrasting dramatic impetus with lyrical subtlety throughout the performance.  Few tenors are able to convey the conflicting suffering, near-dementia and inextinguishable hope in Florestan’s character, but Jonas Kaufmann produces a sound that is both heroic and nuanced. Meanwhile, Nina Stemme’s Leonore is rich and expressive, delivering a heartfelt aria but falling short of joyous brilliance in her duet with Florestan. Falk Struckmann sings a powerful Pizarro, perhaps lacking a bit of snarl at times but successfully portraying an insecure despot who is about to snap. The supporting roles are sung well, but not outstandingly so; they all lack a degree of dramatic involvement. Beethoven’s sublime chorus writing provides the Arnold Schoenberg Choir with plenty of opportunity to shine, especially in the affecting Prisoners’ Chorus. The only major weakness here is the spoken dialogue, which in some cases has been abbreviated into monologue, the content of which is dramatically incoherent and delivered unconvincingly by the principals.

September 22, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BOWEN: Symphonies Nos 1-2 (BBC Philharmonic/Davis)

York Bowen was renowned during his lifetime (1884-1961) as a virtuoso pianist while as a composer he was dubbed, rightly or wrongly, “the English Rachmaninov”. Saint-Saëns, no less, was an admirer.  The bulk of Bowen’s First Symphony was composed when he was 18. If it were a person, I imagine it would be a genial, ruddy-cheeked countryman eager to buy you a pint. The orchestration is delightful and full of subtle colouring and themes with convincing development. The entire three-movement work has a charming alfresco quality. I was bemused to read one contemporary review which condescendingly described it as full of “frolicsome innocence”. How such precocious talent could be described as innocent is beyond me. The Second Symphony of 1909 is more ambitious and substantial. Bowen’s inventiveness never falters over the entire duration of almost 45 minutes. The first two movements are long-spanned but impressively cohesive, completely avoiding the episodic structure of so many 20th century English symphonies. The scherzo is an absolute charmer: a cross between Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn, begging to be described as “gossamer”. Bowen clearly had no truck with the finale-itis (the qualitative fault line between the first three movements and the last, which often descends to…