January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Musicians’ Table: Masterpieces of the French Baroque (Ensemble Battistin)

The sound, airily breathy with the flute, becomes much earthier with the nicely growly cello in the first of the Boismortier pieces. Guillemain, for his part, expertly captures his two violins weaving their separately intricate parts together, while you might have half a thought that Rebel had found a way to doctor his trio with some unacknowledged touches of brass or even organ. For the concluding piece, Boismortier returns in more stately or courtly mood. This top grade release from the ABC is one of a series and handsomely packaged. The notes are comprehensive and historically informative, entirely in English, evidently the results of some not inconsiderable research into the subject of chamber music at this period, set off with some attractive photographs. The actual music is finely chosen and sensitively performed. Only two tracks run beyond four minutes, so the whole CD comes in under 50 minutes, which pass very quickly.Nowadays we seem to feel swindled with anything less than about 65, but people attuned to music of this kind will appreciate the quality of the listening experience they are buying here, rather than simply how long it lasts.

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Rare Rachmaninov (piano: Vladimir Ashkenazy, violin: Dene Olding, soprano: Joan Rodgers; Goldner String Quartet)

It always surprised me how out of fashion Rachmaninov’s music was until comparatively recently, with many of the works we now revere initially dismissed as indulgent and formally weak. He was seen by his contemporaries as a composer out of step with his era, and his music seemed mainly concerned with the past, issues that counted more against him then than they do now. One side-effect of this previous disdain is that, almost 70 years after his death, we are still rescuing some of his earlier works from the limbo into which they fell. His two early string quartets have been only rarely available on CD and the ‘Romance in A minor’ enjoys its first recording here. Olding’s playing is particularly compelling and captures Rachmaninov’s opulent lyricism perfectly. In particular I was happy to hear the 2nd Quartet, the music of which is still out of print in the West, and whose second movement is a wonderfully moody passacaglia that sounds like an early premonition of his late tone poem, The Isle of the Dead. The missing songs from the Opus 38 set are also a pleasing discovery, and throughout the disc Ashkenazy is in excellent form, as are Joan…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TAVENER Requiem, Mahashakti, Eternal Memory (various artists)

Not being particularly attracted to modern English music, I had not heard the music of John Tavener (except for an involuntary and unrewarding exposure to The Protecting Veil). This CD has left me with no desire to hear any more. The Requiem contains sections from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, lines from the Koran and Sufi texts and Hindu words. It calls for cello, soprano and tenor soloists, mixed chorus and orchestra. The composer states that “the essence of this Requiem is contained in the words ‘Our glory lies when we cease to exist’.” Whatever its other values, the Requiem seems to me to be worthless as a piece of music. It has no sense of musical direction. The vocal parts are ungainly and awkward, the cello solos uninteresting and the choral writing turgid and oppressive. The final section, lasting nine minutes, sounds like something that might be written as a finale to a film depicting a fairy tale. Mahashakti, about Celestial Feminine Energy, written for solo violin, strings and tam-tam, is an exasperating work lasting 18 minutes with no musical argument and replete with sickly, cloying harmonies. Surprisingly, Eternal Memory, for cello and strings, does bear some resemblance to…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Opium – Melodies Francaises (counter-tenor: Philippe Jaroussky, piano: Jerome Ducros, violin: Renaud Capuçon, cello: Gautier Capuçon, flute: Emmanuel Pahud)

In his notes for this CD, Jaroussky states that although counter-tenors are not usually associated with French melodies, he decided to sing this music when he found it was suited to his voice. The performances on this CD justify his decision. The songs mostly date from the last quarter of the 19th century and, as the notes observe, derive their inspiration from “the warmth of the conservatory and the silken and velvet draperies of the salon”. Many songs of this type were once described by an English writer as “all atmosphere and no tune”, but Jaroussky has wisely chosen songs that do have some musical interest, even though it may sometimes be slight. Two of Saint-Saëns’s songs, ‘Tournoiement ‘Songe d’opium’’ and ‘Violons dans le soir’, evoke the very special savour of that era. After listening to the entire disc, one has the feeling of having spent an hour in a rather over-scented hothouse. The only criticism of the program is that there are sometimes too many slow-moving songs in succession. Jaroussky’s voice is agreeable and of good quality and he is a careful musician who, as he states, has deliberately eschewed exaggerating the peculiar qualities of these songs. Unlike most…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Classic Protest Songs from Smithsonian Folkways (various artists)

A wave of American protest folk singers charged with this calling emerged from the Depression and this movement came to its apex in the 1950s and 1960s, gaining its widest exposure in the early folk persona of Bob Dylan, which he had modelled on Woody Guthrie. Curiously, two generations later these protest songs continue to have enormous currency as we saw at the US inauguration when Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ was sung by Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and the half a million Americans who were in attendance. In fact there is almost no public protest anywhere in the US that won’t contain an airing of ‘We Shall Overcome’. They represent the popular songbook of the American people, and to our detriment it is hard to see the Australian equivalent. This CD brings together most of these classic songs in their original versions, the 78 masters having been beautifully restored in many cases. One can only feel somewhat nostalgic for an era when the wish to change the world seemed somehow more possible. This is a wonderful document of a precious time where musicians took on the mantle of effecting change and engaged directly with forces infinitely greater…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Celeste Aida: Excerpts from 11 Verdi operas and the Requiem (tenor: Luciano Pavarotti, various artists)

Sometimes the effect is rather bitty; the Aida love duet on the Nile stops abruptly after three minutes. The best feature of these discs, for me, is the orchestral and choral work which illustrates the improvement, probably due to the influence of the Toscanini recordings, that has taken place in the performance of Verdi’s music in the past 50 years. Also noticeable is the excellence of Richard Bongynge as a conductor of Italian opera; he stands successfully alongisde the other famous conductors represented. Pavarotti is a serious and musical artist, but there is a bleating, rasping quality to his voice above forte which may not be noticeable in the opera house (where I never heard him) but which becomes tiresome and irritating when heard in long stretches. He does not have the silvery quality of Bjorling or Bergonzi or the dusky beauty of Villazón’s voice. Of his distinguished associates, Margaret Price sounds excellent in the Ballo in Maschera excerpts, Kiri Te Kanawa exhibits too much tremolo as Desdemona, Maria Chiara is so good as Aida that one wonders why she is not better known, Monserrat Caballé, as usual, sounds far better on records than she ever did in the opera…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PHILIP GLASS Glass Box

The Glass Box represents only about a third of all his works. Notable omissions include Orion, Low, Heroes, The Light, the 2nd, 4th and 6th Symphonies, and all the concertos. Also regrettably missing is the score to Naqoyqatsi as well as many of his ballets, operas and theatre works, not to mention many of the chamber works.  Having said that, the Glass Box offers an extraordinary survey of the most famous living composer today, whose work continues to astound and confound in equal measure. The central enigma continues to be his seeming reliance on such a small palette of sounds, but increased listening does open one to the vast kaleidoscope of truly unique works he creates out of such simple means. The Glass Box, through its scale, also gives the listener a deep experience on one hand of the visceral power and at the other extreme the profound tenderness of Glass’s creative vision.  The box proceeds in somewhat chronological order, starting with three early works, Music in Contrary Motion, Music with Changing Parts, Music in Similar Motion before his first masterwork Music in 12 Parts appears on disc two. Pristine, austere, perfectly proportioned and exquisitely crafted, Music in 12 Parts…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: GUDMUNDSEN-HOLMGREEN Kronos Plays Holmgreen (baritone: Paul Hillier; Kronos Quartet; Danish NSO/Dausgaard)

He is an iconoclast who pioneered “new simplicity” (a reaction to the “new complexity” that was fashionable in 1970’s Europe). This CD focuses on his most recent works for String Quartet, Concerto Grosso for String Quartet and Orchestra, Moving Still for Baritone and Quartet and Last Ground for Quartet and Ocean sounds. The Kronos Quartet has enjoyed a long relationship with Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, having commissioned and premiered his 8th Quartet, Ground, in ‘84 as well as the other works on the CD in ‘90, ‘04 and ‘06 respectively. Concerto Grosso is an engaging through-composed work that strongly features the percussion section. More emotionally affecting is Moving Still, for baritone and string quartet, written for the bicentenary of Hans Christian Andersen. The first movement is based on text by Andersen where he aptly predicts that Americans will one day be able to fly to Europe and see it all in a week. The second movement is based on a popular song setting of Andersen’s In Denmark I was Born. It is an unusually beautiful work which becomes more and more Arabic-sounding, a commentary on the increasingly multicultural makeup of Denmark. The final work, Last Ground, has been described as the composer’s farewell…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUBERT Winterreise (tenor: Mark Padmore, piano: Paul Lewis)

Mark Padmore’s recording has much to be said for it. It is sung in the original keys rather than the lower keys preferred by baritones and basses. The singer has an agreeable voice, although it lacks the romantic warmth of German voices; he is musically sensitive and meets all the dramatic and emotional demands of the music. His voice does not, however, appear to be a very strong one. Its compass also seems somewhat limited. His low notes are not firm and the quality of his voice sometimes deteriorates when the tessitura gets too high for him, particularly in strenuous passages. At other, quieter, moments, his singing almost verges on crooning. As might be expected, Paul Lewis gives a highly musical and technically efficient account of the piano part, but he does not make the most of the onomatopoeic passages, such as the leaves rustling in Der Lindenbaum and the dogs barking in Im Dorfe. The best tenor performance I have heard in recent years has been that by Christoph Pregardien (Teldec), but intending purchasers might also like to consider Hans Hotter’s performance (lately re-issued by EMI in a box set) and also Thomas Quasthoff on RCA. Padmore’s is a…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Broadway Without Words (Richard Hayman & orchestra)

In many cases the lyrics provided the inspiration for the music. Many of the arrangements are perfunctory, which is surprising given Hayman’s reputation. As we are missing crucial elements of the whole, I would have expected more than just a shopping list of tunes. Some of these scores respond well to the full orchestral treatment. Surprisingly, Charles Strouse’s music for Annie does. As do those that originally had a whiff of operetta about them, such as Showboat and Carousel. Others, such as Oliver! simply sound top heavy. Then there are the ‘popera’ scores; the recent fashion for faux operettas, such as Phantom of the Opera. In the cold light of day, Lloyd Webber’s shallow Tosca-like chords from Phantom sound very pompous and threadbare. Similarly, famous songs like ‘Climb Every Mountain’ from The Sound of Music sound bloated and pretentious. Another surprise was how musically thin is Les Mis when given this treatment. Like so many recent musicals, it’s all show and little substance. Oklahoma responds graciously to the big band treatment; but then Richard Rogers was a real composer. The main drawback is that these arrangements make this diverse selection of scores sound much the same. I can’t see this…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Verdi Tenors: Various arias (tenor: Marcelo Álvarez; Coro e Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/Oren)

Born in Argentina in 1962, he was a comparatively late starter, commencing his career as late as 1994. After initial encouragement in his homeland from Giuseppe di Stefano and Luciano Pavarotti he went to Europe where he achieved quick success in Venice, Genoa, Hamburg, London, Tokyo and Vienna. He made his New York Metropolitan debut in 1998 in La Traviata and his Covent Garden debut in 2000. He has already made six CDs for Sony. He began singing in Verdi operas in the lighter, lyrical roles like the Duke in Rigoletto and Alfredo in La Traviata (neither of which is represented on this disc). From these, he progressed to slightly heavier roles like Rodolfo in Luisa Miller and Manrico in Il trovatore. These both appear on this disc, as do two of the most powerful Verdi tenor roles which Alvarez has not yet sung on the stage, Otello and Radames in Aida. He does justice to all the roles recorded here. His voice is powerful, steady and clear, perhaps wanting in warmth, but of good quality. He is certainly alive to all the dramatic demands of these arias, so much so that listening to 14 arias in a row became…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MENDELSSOHN Quartet in E minor Op. 44 No. 2 MOZART Quartet in C, K. 465 “Dissonance” SCHUBERT Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703 (Elias String Quartet)

The Elias Quartet (named after the prophet Elijah) was formed in 1998 and consists of two Frenchwomen, a Scot and a Swede. This is their first CD. It was recorded live at a concert at London’s Wigmore Hall and is put out under the Hall’s own label. Anyone wanting this particular selection of quartets can be safely guided to this disc although it is not an unqualified success. The members of the quartet state that they were somewhat daunted at being recorded live and this is noticeable in the Mozart Quartet. Here, the leader is too reticent and often fails to project the music or to take the lead. (The cellist is much better in this respect.)  There are certainly better recordings of this work, notably by the Budapest Quartet. The players seem to recover their confidence in the Mendelssohn Quartet, a work about which they claim to have very positive feelings. Their performance of this beautiful work is excellent and they make a particularly ravishing sound in the lovely andante movement. Their performance is justly rewarded with vociferous applause from the audience and the players then oblige with an encore in the shape of the slow movement from Mendelssohn’s Quartet…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Asturias: The Spirit of Spain (guitars: Timothy Kain, Minh Le Hoang, Daniel McKay, Stephen Poskitt)

Some of the ten individual pieces of music here are instantly familiar, but enough of them are not to make this a more interesting set than it might otherwise be. It is not a CD of surprises, but it is another hour of this ensemble performing in the way that has made them very popular. The acoustic guitar is far from being everyone’s cup of tea, but that is more a reflection on how it handles music than any failing on the part of those who strum. Here are four who do it about as well as it can be done, and it is hard to see how Guitar Trek could do more than they already do, or do it better. They have extended the domain of the acoustic guitar to the point where there can be little to add to the repertoire, barring some entirely unexpected turn in the evolution of the instrument, or some new brainwave occurring to Kain and friends. If you share their special interest, this CD will certainly be a rewarding addition to your collection.

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