January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Prokofiev: Piano Concertos 1, 2, 4 (piano: Alexander Gavrylyuk, SSO/Vladimir Ashkenazy)

Vladimir Ashkenazy is well known for his fascination with the earthier side of Russian orchestral music. His orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition is far more liturgical than Ravel’s, and so it is to be expected he would take a similar view with Prokofiev. Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk follows Ashkenazy’s lead here: his interpretations and playing are remarkable, with many original touches and a dazzling technique. Ashkenazy as conductor understands what is required in this music and is a superb collaborator. The results are terrific. Like Beethoven, Prokofiev is able to alternate between the male and female moods in his music, setting beautifully dreamy themes against hard brutality. This is what makes the music so attractive and gives it life. The first is the simplest of the five works and easiest to bring off, provided you keep at it. And in this performance they do. This short piece won the composer his spurs in the 1914 Rubinstein Competition. It was a triumph and Glazunov begrudgingly awarded him first prize. Both it and the third concerto leap at you, embracing, irresistible. The third is generally regarded the greatest of the five and it is the most popular, being more comprehensible at first…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HAYDN Mariazellermesse; Missa in tempore belli (Trinity Choir; REBEL Baroque Orchestra/Burdick)

Much of his church music, admittedly, lacks any more than a hint of introspection, spirituality or light and shade. One always has the impression that in Haydn’s take on Catholicism a good time was had by all. Even the supposedly darker Missa in tempore belli, nicknamed the “Timpani Mass”, really becomes ominous only with the menacing timpani figures in the Agnus Dei depicting Napoleon’s army besieging south-east Austria. Otherwise, only the unsettled minor key mood of the Benedictus undermines the otherwise joyful mood. Interestingly, the man whom Beethoven a few years later considered (initially at least) to be a liberator was viewed by the more conventional Haydn as a threat to civilisation. That said, performances of this calibre deserve an unreserved welcome. These two works were composed 24 years apart, the Mariazellermesse in 1782 as a celebration of the ennoblement of a prominent Catholic, a retired army officer who organised Marian pilgrimages. Owen Burdick and his forces (the Trinity Choir refers to the Trinity Episcopal Church in Wall Street, Manhattan, not Trinity College, Cambridge) and REBEL Baroque orchestra are agile and idiomatic in this music while, among the soloists, the men are adequate but the real star in both masses…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Rapsodia (violin: Patricia Kopatchinskaja)

Dubbed the “barefoot fiddler”, Patricia Kopatchinskaja is a young violinist from Moldova. This intimate disc captures her raw energy and stylistic hunger, with a mixture of folksongs, 20th century and contemporary classical works for violin with accompanying piano, double bass and cimbalom. It’s hard not to get swept up in her sheer love of music, her sense of freedom and spontaneity. You hear this especially in the folksongs. Likewise, the fully-notated classical works sound freshly invented. And Kopatchinskaja’s liner notes are as fun and as frank as her playing. Dubbed “the music of my life”, the disc is a family affair. Joining Kopatchinskaja at various points is either or both of her parents, Emilia and Viktor, playing violin/viola and cimbalom respectively. The mix of styles can at times seem a little bizarre, even if the pieces share Eastern European roots. The standouts for me are the folksongs, although they’re complemented well by the more classical outings. Ravel’s Tzigane might be an obvious inclusion and Enescu’s folk-inspired pieces are perhaps a little dry, however Ligeti’s unadorned Duo and younger composer Jorge Sanchez-Chiong’s vignette Crin are gems. Overall, a disc full of vivid colour and confident virtuosity.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PROKOFIEV Suites (baritone: Andrei Laptev, soprano: Jacqueline Porter; SSO/Ashkenazy)

Nothing lightweight about this collection of orchestral works by Prokofiev, beginning with the sound. Even in regular stereo it is vivid, and reproduces an accurate concert hall balance. My one sonic reservation concerns the swinging trumpet in Lieutenant Kijé, presumably principal Paul Goodchild: he’s too far away! The Lieutenant Kijé Suite is taken from a 1933 film score. The satirical story of a fictitious scapegoat in the Tsar’s army brought out the composer’s cheeky side, but there is lyricism too. Ashkenazy’s easygoing performance is one of the few on disc to utilise a singer: the pleasant, open baritone of Andrei Laptev. That commedia-dell-arte romp The Love of Three Oranges was premiered in Chicago. To be honest, the best music of the opera appears in the five-movement suite. Ashkenazy doesn’t make the mistake of rushing the famous March, while the Scherzo is brilliantly light on its feet with just enough of a sinister undercurrent. The Ugly Duckling, Op 18, is rarely recorded. Stylistically it epitomises the gentler side of early Prokofiev, along with the Autumnal Sketch, Op 8 and the Piano Sonata No 4, “From Old Notebooks”. Prokofiev colours the story with a Russian slant. Porter brings it off very well….

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BIZET Highlights from Carmen (singers: Domashenko, Bocelli, Mei, Terfel; Choeur de Radio France, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Chung)

It is to his presence that this Carmen owes its existence: the opera is not exactly underrepresented in the market. Bocelli, whose live performances are usually amplified and rarely in opera, can’t compare to his predecessors, but he makes a reasonably decent fist of Bizet’s guileless hero. There’s not much in the way of style or characterisation, but he sings (or croons) with commitment and warmth of tone. Nevertheless, he’s easily outclassed by his colleagues. Marina Domashenko’s magnetic, silver-voiced account of the title role would crown any Carmen; in an ideal world, this recording would be her vehicle rather than Bocelli’s. Bryn Terfel brings too much bluster and Scarpia-snarl to Escamillo, but his unerring ability to command a scene is undimmed, and Eva Mei is a touchingly girlish Micaëla. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Myung-Whun Chung provides sweepingly idiomatic support. This highlights disc focuses as determinedly on Bocelli as possible, skewing the dramatic arc somewhat, but most of the show’s other big hits are also squeezed into its 75-minute selection. Bocelli-philes may well prefer the complete recording, also released this year, but as a sampler and overview, this disc does its job well.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Live in Vienna (piano: Lang Lang)

Lang Lang has an unfortunate reputation for being a young “star”, in the worst sense of the word. Prima facie, this glossy, 2-CD plus DVD package does little to alter that impression. But the audio is actually relatively sober, and reveals a mature musician beneath the bravado. CD 1 is his first live recording of works by Beethoven. His reading of the Third Sonata is polished and measured, if a little honeyed. He is bold enough to follow it with the Appassionata. In the first movement, purely in terms of dynamic range the man they call “Bang Bang” is disappointingly demure, but his finale is scintillating. CD 2 features some of Albeniz’s short works and Prokofiev’s Sonata, No 7.He starts the Prokofiev brilliantly. At about half a minute or so in, however, the rhythm falters, and the tempo drops off, almost as if he’d started too fast. I had visions of Madame Sousatzka slapping her ruler on the piano top, shouting “Tempo! Tempo!” The second movement is fine; the Precipitato third draws squeals of delight from the crowd. All in all a great recital. If only he’d stopped there… The three Chopin encores represent the showman of old. The crowd…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH Keyboard Works (piano: Angela Hewitt)

The sheer beauty of these recordings (all of Bach’s major solo keyboard works in a 15-disc set) lets one forget the years of intense labour that lie behind it. Angela Hewitt began recording this cycle at her own expense back in 1994, with the Fantasia in C Minor, Two-Part Inventions, Three-Part Inventions and Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. She had intended releasing the disc as an independent, but then offered it to Hyperion who accepted enthusiastically, also accepting the greater challenge of recording the complete major solo works. This was an odyssey of more than a decade, and Hewitt’s detailed notes gives an absorbing guide to her quest for perfection. Most of the recordings were made over just ten years – and then, in 2008, Hewitt decided to re-record the Well-Tempered Clavier using her own piano, an Italian Fazioli, regarded by most professionals as the finest piano made today. This set needs to be absorbed over time, so that one work does not slide into another. If you must choose just one by which to judge the whole, then listen to her magisterial Well-Tempered Clavier, which yields nothing to other Bach masters such as Richter or Schiff. She probes the inner…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ARVO PÄRT Symphony No 4

An early disillusionment with neo-classical and serial trends helped kick-start a radically minimal approach. This is the latest in a long line of Pärt releases on ECM. It’s difficult, then, not to measure it against his earlier discs, including landmarks like Passio and Tabula Rasa. In such company, I’m not entirely convinced by this album. It contains two relatively recent works, written a decade apart. The first, and more successful, is Kanon Pokajanen from 1997. It’s beautiful, classic Pärt – a smooth sound sculpture in which every contour is audible and every line counts. The text is the Canon of Repentance, an Orthodox hymn from the 8th century, sung in Old Church Slavonic. The singing here is gloriously full, transcribing the rich resonance of the Niguliste Church in Tallinn, Estonia. Pärt evidently took his time, spending an “enriching” two years writing it, and it paid off.The Symphony No 4 is a different matter. By its nature Pärt’s music is sparse; however, this piece seems in search of a core. It has all of his trademarks: pockets of sound balanced with silence; high strings; occasional pizzicato flourishes. Yet its greater purpose eludes me. Perhaps it’s the symphonic tag. Part’s previous symphonies…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUMANN Dichterliebe, Liederkreis (tenor: Werner Gura, piano: Jan Schultz)

The same is true, in a way, of great paintings, and of most Baroque and classical music. But there is something different about art song: while the works of the old masters now carry a patina of age, the stripped-back nature of the song-cycles means they have defied the years. On this recording, the words of the German poets Joseph von Eichendorff (Liederkreis) and Heinrich Heine (Dichterliebe) are brought to us with their freshness untouched by time. These compositions speak to us as a friend would in the most intimate conversation. Schumann’s songs of the joys of love and the anguish of unrequited yearnings are given a lucid and heartfelt reading by German tenor Werner Gura, who specialises in Lieder and oratorio. Although a tenor, he is reminiscent of the youthful Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – this is a light voice, never strained, and with a flexible baritonal extension. His accompanist Jan Schultsz (who is also a horn-player and conductor) is supportive at all times, but very much the partner. Everyone has their favourites in this repertoire, but this one is a worthy rival for the most celebrated Lieder recordings. A recital for the ages.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Lettere Amorose (mezzo: Magdalena Kožená; Private Musicke/Pitzl)

Having already conquered Handel, Vivaldi and Bach on recent discs, Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená is back in the Baroque yet again, but this time treading earlier and much less familiar ground. Lettere Amorose, her latest effort, is an esoteric and enchanting selection of vocal music by Monteverdi and his Italian contemporaries. These are songs, rather than arias: intimate and relatively simple in scope, and given luminous voice by Kožená. Rarities abound – nothing here could claim to be over-recorded – and Kožená revels palpably in the possibilities of this colourful and crucial musical era. From the tripping dance rhythms of Kapsberger’s Felici gl’animi, to Vitali’s silvery O bei lumi, to a vividly bereft rendition of Si dolce è il tormento (Monteverdi’s only appearance in the program), she is in superb form, remaining true to both the period and her own distinct, emotionally driven style. Another notable inclusion is Merula’s extraordinary (and extraordinarily long) lullaby Hor ch’é di dormire, in which Mary sings to the infant Jesus of his own crucifixion, accompanied by a ground bass of just two chords – a deceptively simple piece which Kožená sustains with devastating sincerity. Her opalescent timbre is well suited to this music, her…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Officium Novum (sop saxophone: Jan Garbarek; The Hilliard Ensemble)

Sadly I was forever turned off the soprano saxophone by smooth jazz superstar Kenny G. Not by his success – any instrumentalist who sells more than 75 million albums earns my awe, if not respect. No, it was his effortless frippery and shinily sugared tone that soundly nailed the coffin. Which brings me to that other soprano sax superstar, Jan Garbarek, and his latest pairing with The Hilliard Ensemble. On this, the second follow up to the phenomenally successfully 1994 collaboration Officium, they dovetail what they individually do best – liquefied saxophone improvisations and crisply sung early music – to create a gentle atmospheric fusion. The comparison that springs to mind is of a graffiti artist wandering through the Sistine Chapel and tagging at will. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for breaking down genres. No, it’s the slack aesthetic and overall lack of purpose that I have a problem with. On the plus side, the recording itself is superb. Like the first two CDs, it was recorded in a richly reverberant Benedictine monastery in the Austrian mountains. Likewise, I cannot fault the technique and expressivity – they are, frankly, sublime. It’s just that overall the venture feels inconsequential.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUMANN Davidsbündlertänze; Kinderszenen; Sonata in G minor (piano: Angela Hewitt)

Angela Hewitt has made a seamless and very successful transition from Bach to Schumann with her usual poise, precision, imagination and humanity. The Davidsbündlertänze are, even by Schumann’s standards, a poetic masterpiece. Hewitt is across every nuance, capturing the strangely off-centre melody of the first dance, the even stranger syncopation of the tarantella No 6 and the jolly polka of No 12 to perfection. In the penultimate number, Wie aus der Ferne (“As from afar”) the melody starts without a break from the previous section and then develops into a melancholy ländler. In Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”), sample the final section Der Dichter spricht (“The poet speaks”), savour the uniquely German quality of Innigkeit or “inner depths” Hewitt brings to this enchanting music. Time really does stand still here. The Second Sonata is more problematic. Although generally regarded as his best keyboard sonata, the form didn’t suit Schumann’s essentially dreamy nature and instinctively discursive expression. What some may see as excessive dramatic urgency I felt sounded more like relentless headlong impetuosity, although this is no reflection on Hewitt’s playing. The lovely song-like slow movement radiates a rapt tenderness. A lovely CD, beautifully recorded.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HALVORSEN Orchestral Works Volume 2 (violin: Marianne Thorsen, Bergen Phil/Järvi)

Johan Halvorsen was always an essential mention on any “one hit wonders” list of classical composers, known exclusively for his Entry of the Boyars. I missed Volume 1 of this series but I’m just as enthusiastic about Volume 2 as everyone seemed to be about its predecessor. Grieg himself loved these scores. Much of the music (Three Norwegian Dances, Air Norvégian and Chant de Veslemöy) features violin solos, delightfully played here by Marianne Thorsen. The second longest piece is the Suite ancienne, formed from entr’acts for the incidental music for Holberg’s (as in Grieg’s Holberg suite) play The Lying-in Room. It’s a skilful pastiche of 18th-century dance forms. My assessment of Halvorsen as a Nordic Eric Coates or Leroy Anderson was completely confounded when I heard the Second Symphony: it reinforced my amazement at how many seriously first-rate symphonies were composed by seriously obscure composers. This one is a little gem, with a recurring “fate” motive in all four movements (à la Tchaikovsky), a delicious oboe melody in the slow movement, reminiscent of the one in the slow movement of Bizet’s Symphony and a lovely intermezzo. All in under 28 minutes. An absolute winner!

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