June 7, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART: String Quartets K157, K458, K589 (Jerusalem Quartet)

These are invigorating accounts of three Mozart string quartets that neatly encapsulate the history of his writing for this musical medium. Mozart’s string quartets fall into three major brackets of works spread over 17 or 18 years, each represented here. The first quartet K157 in C major dates from 1772, when Mozart was just 17 years old. The quartet form was undergoing rapid development at this stage and Mozart, fresh from his musical explorations across Europe, was brimming with ideas. His youthful zest is already tempered by deep reflection, as shown in the astonishing depth of the Allegro which makes up the first movement. His prodigious development as a musician is reflected in the clutch of works known as the “Haydn” quartets. Here is Mozart in 1784, not quite 30 but already in his full maturity as a composer. The performance here of the Hunt quartet (K458) shows why this bracket of quartets is regarded as the finest he ever wrote. Mozart evidently thought he had pretty well exhausted his explorations of the genre, for although he was later commissioned to write a further set, he never completed the proposed cycle. Here from that final series is one of his…

May 31, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MILLS: Pages from a Secret Journal (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Mills)

Lavish collections of Australian composers’ orchestral work are sadly all too rare, making this is a disc to be treasured. It contains four substantial works by Richard Mills written over a two-decade period, beginning with 1989’s Bamaga Diptych and progressing chronologically to 2008’s Symphony of Nocturnes. Richard Mills has long enjoyed a multifaceted career; he first rose through the ranks of the orchestra as a percussionist before making a name as a composer and conductor. His commitment to Australian music has been profound, cemented recently by his exhaustive 20-disc Australian Composers Series leading the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, so the dedicated focus here on his own music is well deserved. The works here are classic Mills: sweeping and confident, full of malleable shapes and exotic turns of phrase. His renowned magic as an orchestrator is abundant here, with bold colours reminiscent of Ravel and Stravinsky shining through each score. To my ears there is little precedent or parallel for this kind of music here in Australia, although perhaps the lush romanticism of Richard Meale and the energetic optimism of Carl Vine come close. As always with Mills there are strong elements of fantasy and imagination at play, with nods towards the…

May 31, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BARTOK: The Miraculous Mandarin Suite; BRAHMS: Symphony No 1 (LSO/Pasternack)

This is an odd coupling. The notes don’t help explain the collation of these disparate works except for the conductor’s rather vaguely argued affection for both pieces. Brahms comes out of it best as Pasternack gives the great work due weight, although the performance loses energy in the development section of the first movement. Bartók is a different matter. The Miraculous Mandarin was the final stage work of one of the key composers of the 20th century. It is set in a brothel, where thugs use an attractive young girl to draw men in to murder and rob them. The music is remarkable and the composer uses all his skills in conjuring up the lurid world described. Feverish strings rush us forward into the score, and the composer’s trademarks of sliding trombones and exotic percussion are employed to great effect. However, the piece had a rocky start. The controversial ballet so horrified the original audience in Cologne in 1926 that it was withdrawn after one performance, after which it was suppressed due to censorship for many years. There are many recordings of the piece. Bartók’s countryman Antal Doráti’s tough and muscular approach can be heard on a fine old Mercury CD…

May 24, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VIRTUOSO: Music by Tartini, JS Bach, Wieniawski, Franck (violin: Ray Chen; piano: Noreen Polera)

It’s heartening to see major labels still signing largely unknown talent. In a well-planned and intelligent program to showcase his eclectic virtuosity, Chen raises the curtain with Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata, music which supposedly came to the composer in a dream in which it was played by the devil. The work begins with sweet simplicity and becomes more fearsomely difficult as it progresses. By the end, Chen’s virtuosity is like shards of light refracted through a brilliant prism. The first major work is the famous chaconne from JS Bach’s D minor Partita. For all its structural formality, this sublime movement harbours as wide an array of emotions as any Romantic violin piece, ranging from joy to solemnity and grief. Chen maintains the shape in one great arc but also remembers that a chaconne is still a dance, even in Bach’s hands. The other masterpiece is the César Franck sonata, perhaps the greatest Romantic violin sonata of all, composed by the 64-year-old Franck, an eminent organist who, it’s thought, would have been unable to play the violin. Here, Chen’s youthful ardour is to the fore. I’ve always found this work, especially the first movement, a wonderful amalgam of poetry and drama,…

May 24, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: S’IL VOUS PLAIT: Music for Accordion (Mie Miki)

For those who think classical music can’t be realised on accordion with any depth or subtlety, and who couldn’t acclimatise to Richard Galliano’s accordionised Bach, this disc could be the sweetest and most eclectic means of conversion. Japanese piano accordionist Mie Miki is one of the instrument’s most gifted exponents. I doubt anyone listening to her new album of 23 virtuoso miniatures and arrangements could fail to smile at the program’s delightful eccentricities or gasp at the sheer technical mastery on display. As the title suggests, S’il vous plaît is most persuasive in French repertoire. Rigadoons by Rameau showcase Miki’s feeling for lively yet elegant Baroque ornamentation; she manages to squeeze real pathos out of Legrand’s theme from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and André Astier’s Miss Karting seduces with Gallic musette charm. Dance forms are the order of the day in this recital replete with waltzes (Shostakovich and Philip Glass), polkas (Rossi) and tangos (Stravinsky and the gutsy title track by Piazzolla, patron saint of accordionists). Zez Confrey’s novelty piano classic Dizzy Fingers is an inspired inclusion: one really can picture Miki’s fingers leaping and prancing over the keys and buttons. Then there’s Handel, Brahms, Schubert and Scarlatti for good measure….

May 24, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH: Cantatas and Arias for soprano (Elizabeth Watts; The English Concert/Bicket)

Elizabeth Watts caught international attention when she won the Song Prize at the 2007 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, and her star has risen steadily since, particularly in art song and 18th-century repertoire. This release – her second solo disc – is a testament to her talent in both of these specialties, bringing a lieder singer’s sensibility to a selection of Bach’s most beautiful and best-loved vocal music. Watts’s warm, focused soprano has an unforced beauty to it, particularly in its luscious middle register. Her diction is excellent, her phrasing graceful, and she demonstrates scrupulous attention to the text – assets honed in recital and which also make her an elegant Bach singer. That said, it’s not until the second half of this disc that she really shines, the joy and serenity of Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! and the similarly jubilant aria Ich bin vergnügt showing her at her passionate best. Her coloratura, if not always seamless, is vividly executed, and there’s a genuine smile in the voice. In lachrymose repertoire such as Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut and Ich wünschte mir den Tod Watts is less persuasive. She sings sweetly, but her interpretations are hampered by a…

May 24, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART: Piano Concertos No 20, K466; No 27, K595 (piano: Mitsuko Uchida, Cleveland Orchestra)

We’ve been blessed over the past six months with two fine recordings of Mozart’s 20th and 27th piano concertos together: first Kissin’s with the Kremerata Baltica for EMI and now this one, by Dame Mitsuko Uchida. Her reputation as a great interpreter of Mozart is built solidly on an impressive discography, including the complete sonatas (earning her a Gramophone Award) and concertos (with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Tate). Decades after her previous recordings of the latter she has begun a new cycle with the Cleveland Orchestra, this time choosing to direct the works herself from the keyboard. Her first effort in the new series, concertos 23 and 24, won Uchida her first ever Grammy Award this year. This, the second instalment, is just as good. Her tone is elegant and fluent throughout, her phrasing simple and natural. What she lacks in dazzle or humour – in the cadenzas especially – she makes up for with sheer beauty and musicality. A Mozart specialist, she is thoroughly in her element here and manages to convey a genuine love for the music. It is interesting to note that her conception of the works is mostly unchanged since the 1980s, which raises the question of why…

May 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: A new breed of CD Player: group review

The Cyrus CD6 SE CD player had been our favourite for some time, until last year that is, when the brilliant Audiolab 8200CD blew us away. That doesn’t make this group test a foregone conclusion, though, oh no. Not only does it represent a fierce struggle for the Cyrus to regain its belt, it also introduces two new challengers that hope to throw a spanner in the works. Ok, so “new” might not quite be the best phrase with which to describe the Roksan Kandy K2, which looks identical to its’ previous CDS model, but underneath the hood it’s undergone some quite hefty revisions, and as the previous model received a solid four stars, the portents look good. The Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite also looks very promising. Essentially a smaller, more affordable version of the full-size Pearl that was released last year, it represents both the most forward-thinking player here, and also the only one with SACD support. Weathering the digital-music storm CD players have essentially changed very little over the years, so “forward-thinking” might seem an odd phrase to use, but we are suddenly starting to see progress, and ironically it’s thanks to the very thing that’s often perceived…

May 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Mad Bastards (Brendan Fletcher, Dean Daley-Jones, Lucas Yeeda)

There’s a scene near the start of this Aboriginal drama when a muscly indigenous man gets into a vicious bar-room fight. For a moment it looks as if director and co-writer Brendan Fletcher’s debut feature is going to turn into an Australian answer to 1994 Kiwi hit Once Were Warriors – an unflinchingly powerful “social problem” picture focusing on the indigenous underclass.  Actor Dean Daley-Jones even looks remarkably similar to that film’s male lead, Temuera Morrison, who played a Maori given to fits of domestic violence. But soon the energy levels relax and the film turns into a gentle road journey in which TJ (Daley-Jones) travels from Perth to the remote Kimberley to see his estranged son Bullet (Lucas Yeeda). In a parallel plot strand, Bullet is arrested for a petty crime and sent to a training camp where juveniles are taught traditional desert survival skills. The film suffers from its too-understated narrative instincts, which see the twin stories often drifting and allows tuneful song interludes by the Pigram Brothers to interrupt the story flow. But there’s no denying the film has real heart, buoyed by surprisingly strong performances from a mostly inexperienced cast who drew on their own lives in creating their…

May 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: FREDDY KEMPF: Rachmaninov, Busoni, Ravel, Stravinsky

This is technically demanding repertoire. Not many pianists would even attempt it. Yet, here is a 33-year-old whose technique is so formidable that none of his decisions are dictated by the level of difficulty. Artists of this calibre should be treasured. How knowingly he captures the melancholic nostalgia below the surface of Rachmaninov’s late masterpiece Variations on a Theme of Corelli. This is Rachmaninov with nothing more to prove, no further need to impress an increasingly fickle public, making music out of a private compulsion to create. Kempf displays the requisite range of power and inward-looking tenderness to match Rachmaninov’s vision. Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the chaconne from Bach’s second Violin Partita follows in the same key with a satisfying inevitability. Here Kempf rises to the challenge set by Busoni to recreate the sound of a vast church organ with all stops out. In Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and Stravinsky’s Three movements from Petrushka, Kempf makes a deliberate choice to move away from the music’s origins in dance. Employing plenty of rubato, he treats the Stravinsky as a free fantasia, wallowing in its pianistic textures (unlike the sharp, brittle excitement of the recent, marvellous recording by Yuja Wang). Likewise,…

May 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Pianomania (featuring Lang Lang, Pierre Laurent-Aimard)

This documentary could just as easily have been called “monomania”. It is a character study of obsessive Steinway technician Stefan Knüpfer, a virtuoso among piano tuners. He prepares the instruments for the actual virtuosi, responding with inexhaustible patience to their often nebulous requests. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, for instance, wants a piano with two contrasting soundworlds for a recording of The Art of Fugue – an effect Knüpfer attempts to realise, in a rather Chaplinesque episode, with the help of removable sound absorbers and glass sound mirrors.  Knüpfer’s mishaps continue when Lang Lang announces that the piano tuned especially for his solo concert is better suited for chamber music. Comedy duo Igudesman & Joo draw a welcome spark of levity from the technician, whose implacable earnestness does grow a bit dull at times. In fact, the film’s only shocking moment is when we learn Knüpfer has a family. What? A life away from Steinway?  Knüpfer is not the most charismatic linchpin for a documentary, but by god, he’s definitely the man you’d want tuning your piano. And that’s what this documentary is really about – the quest for the perfect piano sound, and the men who devote their lives to it. A…

May 17, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No 2, Grande Polonaise, Live in Beijing (piano: Yundi)

Yundi – he left the ‘Li’ behind on his move to EMI – is the “other” Chinese classical pianist. A rival to Lang Lang, Yundi has a less hysterical fan base (although it is similarly vast) and a more sophisticated European sheen to his sound. Chopin is Yundi’s composer of choice, and this CD is devoted to a live all-Chopin concert given in Beijing in May of last year. The bonus DVD contains the complete concert, plus two extra nocturnes. There is no gainsaying the poise and evenness of Yundi’s technique. One example may be found in the fast scale passages towards the close of the Grande Polonaise Brilliante Op 22: they are beautifully clear. The pianist throws himself with gusto into the tumultuous first movement of the Sonata in B-flat minor, bringing light and shade to his attack so the rapid repeated chords never descend into a bang-fest. The real test of this piece, however, is the infamous Funeral March. Here, and in other pieces where an inward quality is called for (like the E-flat Nocturne), Yundi seems literal and uninvolved. His playing is pretty in the march’s central D-flat major episode but the ache of nostalgia is absent. Perhaps the clarity of Yundi’s pianism works…

May 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RAVEL: Complete Piano Music (piano: Steven Osborne)

What comes across most vividly in the Scottish pianist’s recordings, particularly in Impressionist repertoire, is a deep and joyous engagement with the sonorities of his instrument. Here he offers up some of the most fluid and vibrant Ravel I’ve ever heard, superior to Louis Lortie’s and to the earlier Hyperion survey by Angela Hewitt. Gaspard de la nuit is the true test of technique for any Ravelian. While Osborne doesn’t quite attain the mirage-like perfection of Martha Argerich’s reading, his Gaspard is impeccably played, bringing darkness and mystery to the fore. Le tombeau de Couperin is faster and livelier than that of Anne Queffélec (whose interpretation he acknowledges as an influence) but loses none of the delicate refinement or lilting dance character. As for the other famous works on the disc: in Pavane for a dead princess, Osborne shows just the right amount of restraint and eschews the tendency – much lamented by Ravel – to play too slowly in the manner of a dirge. The solo piano version of La Valse was intended as a rehearsal score for the work famously rejected by Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. As the pianist explains in his thoughtful liner note, it is not always included in Ravel piano collections but Osborne himself fleshed out…

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