January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TCHAIKOVSKY Variations on a rococo theme PROKOFIEV Sinfonia concertante cello: (Gautier Capuçon; Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre/Gergiev)

It’s unlikely that even with the powerful and eloquent advocacy of Gautier Capuçon (who claims to have loved the work since he was a child – some people must have strange childhoods) Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante will ever supplant either the Dvorák or Elgar concertos in the concert hall. This is a pity as the work certainly deserves more acknowledgement than it has ever received. Sure, it has the skittish wit, brittle elegance and lyrical warmth of the composer at his best but I’m tempted to think he just poured too much material into it. Composed for Rostropovich, it first appeared as the composer’s ‘Cello Concerto No 2’ in 1952 but was then renamed with its current title. The Concertante is misleading, as the cello’s part is as demanding as that in any conventional concerto, with what the excellent sleeve noted refers to as “bitingly confrontational exchanges with the orchestra”. For me, the most bizarre section occurred in the last movement where we hear parodies of Mahler, Rossini and Britten. Gautier’s performance is a tour de force. His exquisitely nuanced Rococo Variations take this work to a new level with the Third Variation assuming a gorgeous balletic quality. 

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: GOLIJOV La Pasión Segun San Marcos (Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, Orquesta La Pasion and Members of the Simon Boliva Youth Orchestra of Venezuela/Guinand)

This is a two-disc CD presentation of a musical setting of the St Mark’s Passion, a text which exists in hundreds of musical settings, with Bach’s at the pinnacle. There’s also a DVD of a performance in Holland in 2008. This modern work – a sort of world-music/classical fusion — comes from composer Osvaldo Golijov, who was born in Argentina from Eastern European Jewish parents, and who has lived in Argentina, Israel and the USA. Expression of a common humanity rather than one strict religious philosophy seems to be key to the work. It pulsates with South American rhythms, but at the same time it sounds as if it would be equally at home in Africa, or New Guinea or anywhere. As you listen, Golijov’s influences seem many, but referential rather than direct. There are allusions to Orff, and even Britten, and Theodorakis too. It’s a fecund work, which has sprung from rich soil. The orchestra is very South American in its basis of percussion and brass. The choral singing is very beautiful, and the small handful of soloists acquit themselves very well, particularly the fine soprano Jessica Rivera. The DVD of the concert performance is worth viewing once to set…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; Le Carnival Romain (Anima Eterna Brugge/Van Immerseel)

And so it is with the new recording of Berlioz’s most famous composition. This is a valuable addition to the catalogue, for you are unlikely to have ever heard it played before in this fashion. The work has lent itself generously over the last 150 years to huge orchestras and ambitious conducting. Not any more, and a greater contrast with our comfort zone experiences could not be imagined. Much of it is a great improvement. The steely strings, the drier woodwinds, the edgier brass playing, contribute to a more effective nightmare than we usually get. This approach de-romanticises the score very effectively. Similar treatment for Mahler’s 4th Symphony with Roger Norrington and the Stuttgart orchestra, robbed the work of feeling. Curiously, this does not apply to this work, couched as it is in cold dreams and night sweats. However, it must be said that there are times, primarily towards the end of the last two sections, where a more voluptuous orchestral sound is needed, as the performance rattles a bit at the end of those sections. This is more of a problem with the overture, Roman Carnival. Immerseel clearly has no idea what makes the piece work and it goes…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SHOSTAKOVICH Piano Trios Nos. 1, 2 SCHNITTKE Piano Trio; Kempf Trio

Shostakovich’s Trio Op. 8 predates his first symphony and was begun when the composer was 16. It followed emotional crises caused by the First World War, his struggle with tuberculosis, the death of his father and his love for the daughter of a Moscow professor. It is not surprising that the work is a kaleidoscope of emotions ranging from ecstasy to despair. The Trio Op. 67 dates from the worst period of the Second World War (1944) and reflects the deprivations and horrors suffered by the Soviet people at that time. It is said that at the first performance, by Shostakovich and members of the Beethoven Quartet, members of the audience were moved to tears and left stunned at its conclusion. Further performances were banned probably because the authorities recognised that the Jewish theme in the finale was a reference to the persecution of Jews taking place throughout Europe. The Schnittke Trio (1991) is an arrangement made after the composer had recovered from a serious stroke, of his string Trio of 1985. It is written very much in the style of Shostakovich’s music but is, if anything, even grimmer and more pessimistic than that latter’s 0p. 67. It consists of…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Bach Album (oboe and oboe d’amore: Diana Doherty; Ironwood)

Of the works on this disc, BWV 1053R is also known as Harpsichord Concerto No. 2 and BWV 1055R as Harpsichord Concerto No. 4; both will be familiar to many listeners. The oboe Concerto BWV1059R has been reconstructed from music in Bach’s Cantatas which, scholars believe, was also re-worked by Bach in this concerto. Similarly, the Oboe Sonata here recorded (BWV1030b) may be the original version of a work later known as the Flute Sonata in B minor (BWV2060). None of these works seems to me to be among Bach’s greatest works except for the slow movement of BWV1059R and possibly the Concerto BWV1055. Also included are sinfonias with oboe solos from two of Bach’s Cantatas. All of them are excellently played by Diana Doherty, who has used different instruments as well as varying her reeds to achieve a better Baroque effect. She is accompanied by the small instrumental ensemble known as Ironwood using modern instruments with gut strings. The string parts are played by single instruments instead of a string group, thus achieving greater transparency. 

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Piazzolla and Beyond (trumpet: David Gordon, violin: Adam Summerhayes; London Concertante)

That augurs badly for this disc, which presents new settings of six works by Argentina’s tango-master Astor Piazzolla, alongside four original compositions inspired by Piazzolla by pianist David Gordon and violinist Adam Summerhayes. Piazzolla, an innovative composer and musician who created cutting-edge music inspired by the tango tradition, breathed fresh life into what had become a rather tired musical genre. But although an inspired creator, he set strict limits on his musical expression. He used a bandoneon (an instrument similar to a concertina) as his main instrument. He eschewed strings and percussion, and even disliked jazz-style improvisation. Yet this album presents a string orchestra with piano, and positively glistens with percussive effects from the stringed instruments as well as great expressive jazz riffs. It should be a universe away from Piazzolla’s world. Yet it is not. In their very free interpretations of Piazzolla’s works, and in their own compositions, Gordon and Summerhayes honour the composer by giving us some wildly expressive and continually exciting music which is as thrilling as the tango itself. As an act of homage, this works. As an explosion of raw musical passion, it works even better. 

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Martha Argerich & Friends Live from the Lugarno Festival 2009 (piano: Martha Argerich, violin: Renaud Capuçon, cello: Gautier Capuçon; Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Vedemikov)

Martha Argerich’s annual festivals at Lugarno give young artists a chance to perform with older, more established musicians and to explore the byways of chamber music. This 3-CD set comes from the 2009 Festival. All the music is capably and sensitively performed. Argerich, of course, is a renowned artist and the Capuçon brothers, Gautier, the cellist, and Renaud, the violinist, are also well known. Other, newer musicians, who are worthy of note are the pianists Lilya Zilberstein and Khatia Buniatishvili. Because 2009 was the anniversary year for Schumann and Mendelssohn, both these composers are featured. Mendelssohn’s Piano Sextet, written at the same time as his Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a pleasant enough piece, if somewhat garrulous, but it cannot hold a candle to those other masterpieces. Schumann’s Fantasiestücke for piano, cello and violin, are also hardly amongst his greatest works. The virtually unknown Sextet in E flat by Glinka is also a work worthy of an occasional hearing, but contains nothing of the Russian nationalist traits for which he became famous. For me, the most interesting work was Bloch’s Piano Quintet No. 1, whose quality makes one wonder why his music is not heard more…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Elgar: The Crown of India; Imperial March; Coronation March; Empire March (BBC PO; Sheffield PO/Davis)

The longtext was written by one Henry Hamilton, something of a hack. The speeches are relieved by Elgar’s attractive and diverse music but the pretentious exchanges between the voices of Indian cities – as each city argues for its right to be the new capital – requires a deal of patience and historical perspective. Even so, more circumstance and less pomp would have better served Elgar in scoring this curious work. Very little of his original orchestration has survived. As recently as the early 1970s, the full score was lost when the building housing the archive of the music publisher was demolished. All that remained was a piano score and a recording of a suite conducted by Elgar. So the remarkable Anthony Payne again came to the rescue. He is the genius who realised Elgar’s unfinished sketches for his third symphony. Andrew Davis knows how this music works and gets excellent performances from all and sundry. The recording is first-rate and there is some marvellous, undiscovered Elgar for the fans to dine on. Hopefully, Chandos see fit to issuea CD without the tedious spoken text at some point. However, to have the work complete for the first time is very…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Paganini Plus (saxophone: Raaf Hakkema; piano: Hans Eijsackers)

A founding member of the Calefax Reed Quintet, he has provided them with arrangements of works by composers as diverse as Bach, Ravel and Rameau. As a soloist, he has arranged Paganini’s Caprices for saxophone and this disc finds him again concentrating on the master violinist’s output. Many of the works on this release are effectively Paganini ‘once removed’ as they are arrangements of other composers’ arrangements. Hekkema is a brilliant saxophonist and he uses his full bag of tricks in attempting to match Paganini’s range. However the result is only partially satisfying, as many of the effects seem forced or not quite right. Frequently the ‘effect’ is heard rather than the musical content but, given that the repertoire for the classical saxophone is severely limited he makes a brave attempt. The highlight is the arrangement of Paganini’s Quartet XV where Hekkema puts aside his bag of tricks and focuses on the music of this wonderful and less well known work. Pianist Eijsacker is a willing and talented partner; the sound is spectacularly captured by Dabringhaus and Grimm’s engineers and the sleeve notes (by Hakkema) are lucid and informative. Ultimately, however, this will be of limited interest to anyone but…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano Concerto in D minor (piano: Ronald Brautigam; Norrköping SO/Parrott)

Typically iconoclastic, it opens with a solo piano theme that is answered by the orchestra, before a more traditional ritornello follows – based on the piano theme. The second movement, one of Beethoven’s finest, is a dialogue between an initially angry and strident orchestra and a serene piano that eventually dominates – soothing the orchestra. The final Rondo is a joyous romp. For this recording, pianist Roland Brautigam uses a newly revised score for the outer movements that includes annotations by the composer in 1808, eventually deciphered in 1994. The overall effect of these changes is minimal. Towards the end of 1806, Beethoven also wrote his only Violin Concerto for Franz Clement, which is another strikingly original work with its opening timpani strikes. In 1808, at the request of pianist/composer Muzio Clementi, Beethoven transcribed it for piano. Unfortunately much of the piano transcription is a straight repetition of the violin part with little or no harmonic addition. This can be a little disconcerting for the listener used to the violin version. The cadenzas, however, were newly composed by Beethoven and probably contain the most interesting music in the concerto. Brautigam gives a characteristically reliable performance and the Norrköping Orchestra are…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SHOSTAKOVICH String Quartets; Cello Sonata; Piano Trios; Piano Quintet (cello: Heinrich Schiff; Eroica Trio; Jerusalem Quartet; Atrium String Quartet, The Nash Ensemble)

This is especially true as all of the music is of high quality and lacks both the trivial material that mars so much of his work, and the bleak despair of some of his last quartets. The most attractive work is the Piano Quintet which was written between the Stalinist terror of the late 1930s and the Nazi invasion of 1941, a period when life was fairly secure and consumer goods had become more readily available.  On the other hand, the great Piano Trio of 1944 reflects the horrors and privations suffered by the Russian people during the war. The “Jewish” theme of the finale is interpreted now – and was at the time – as a reference to the persecution of the Jews both in Nazi-occupied Europe and the Soviet Union. The Quartet No. 3, written just after the war, begins , according to the composer himself, with a movement describing the “bliss of ignorance” followed by other movements related to the atrocities of the war and a final movement asking the meaning of life itself. Both this and the Quartet No. 7, a depiction of the composer’s late wife, contain moments of real lyrical beauty of which any composer would…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ELGAR Enigma Variations in the South (Sydney Symphony/Ashkenazy)

You really have to go over the top these days in this work (who could forget Bernstein’s transformation of Nimrod from tweedy county type into a Mahlerian Viennese neurotic?) to draw apart from the pack in what has now become, regrettably, a warhorse. With the best will in the world, I can’t pretend that Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony have any more to say than Monteux, Jochum, Mackerras or Davis. For me, the real gem in this release is the so called Concert Overture – In the South (“Alassio”), inspired by a holiday the Elgars took on the Italian Riviera. Apparently, they didn’t enjoy themselves very much but you’d never guess it from the music. This score contains some of Elgar’s greatest music. As a symphonic poem, it completely eclipses anything Liszt wrote in the genre and makes Richard Strauss’s Aus Italien, inspired under similar circumstances, sound positively insipid. The opening is one of the most exhilarating in all music: sweeping, impetuous and radiating passion. The Italian sensuality of the viola passage (later published separately as a song In Moonlight) is ravishing. Ashkenazy controls the climaxes perfectly and I urge anyone who has never heard this brilliant piece to investigate it:…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN 19 Waltzes (piano: Jean-Philippe Collard)

Back then, the beauty of the best analog recordings was lost in the ferocity of the digital age. It took more than a decade before most studio technicians had developed the skill – or the ear – to again record with natural audio spaciousness and bloom. In this set, the opening waltz is marred by a hard jangly sound in the upper register. It’s impossible to tell if this is from the recording methodology, or studio ambience, microphone placement or from the piano itself, but it sets a discordant tone right from the start. Things do improve as the set continues, but this is a disappointing reading of the waltzes. It seems a rather perfunctory reading. Slower passages in particular, as in the Op 34 No. 3, the Valse Brillante, sound just tired rather than deliciously languid. There are far better accounts of the Chopin Waltzes. The outstanding set, from Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti, also comes from EMI and is my definite preferred set. The only reason this Jean-Philippe Collard recording could augment a collection is that it collects all 19 waltzes, including four posthumous compositions which are missing from the Lipatti recording. 

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