January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BRUCKNER Symphony No. 5 in B flat (Orchestre des Champs-Elysées/Herrewghe)

Allegedly his favourite, it’s the only one not subjected to disfiguring (often disastrous) cuts and revisions by others, or the composer himself. The stately introduction to the First Movement, revisited at the start of both the Second and Fourth, the strange stop/start scherzo with its aborted waltz which never seems to get going properly, the strangely jaunty, almost ironic, Till Eulenspiegel-like clarinet theme before the titanic fugue of the Finale are all wonderful. All Bruckner Symphonies are, to an extent, architectural, but the Fifth is, like the Eighth, the symphonic equivalent of a gothic cathedral. What amazes me about this recording and performance is the heft and richness of the sound achieved with only 67 musicians. Interpretively, this is one of Bruckner’s trickiest symphonies in terms of tempo fluctuations which threaten the overarching structure. Herreweghe negotiates these successfully without them sounding like awkward gear changes, especially in the complex First Movement, where the slower, quieter passages assume an intensely introverted quality which suits the music admirably. That only four horn players in final brass chorale can achieve such an apotheosis is miraculous. This is a wonderful alternative to the Karajan’s one and Jochum’s three versions.

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Così fan tutte (singers: Karita Mattila, Anne Sofie von Otter, Francisco Araiza, Thomas Allen; Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Marriner)

Così fan tutte is a fiendishly difficult opera to get right. Text is continually undercut by subtext and the veracity with which characters behave and emote is repeatedly called into question. Distinguishing feigned sincerity from genuine sincerity is no easy task. Intelligent directors are able to address these issues in staged realisations of the opera but it is rather more difficult to address them on a recording This 3-disc set was originally released (on Philips) in 1990 and is mostly successful in negotiating the opera’s many challenges (challenges which, when tackled astutely, make this such an outstanding work). Marriner has assembled some impressive names (including José van Dam as Don Alfonso) and for the most part they live up to their reputations. The ensembles offer opportunities for some wonderful singing and compelling repartee. Karita Mattila and Anne Sofie von Otter are well-matched as sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella but, surprisingly, Mattila is less impressive on her own and underwhelms in both of her set pieces, ‘Come scoglio’ and ‘Per pietà’. Also surprising is the sometimes ragged playing of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the occasionally sluggish accompanied recitatives. But all-in-all this re-release is to be applauded, especially…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MARTINU Cello Concertos Nos. 1, 2; Concertino for Cello (cello: Raphael Wallfisch; Czech Phil/Belohlavek)

These works have the melodic fluency and musicality that are the birthright of all Czech composers. Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) wrote nearly 400 works including 16 operas and 11 ballets. It seems odd that, with all its excellent qualities, his music has not become more popular than it is. Perhaps the fact that he left Czechoslovakia in 1923 meant that he lost touch with his homeland and his natural audience. He continued to write Czech-style music (the second Concerto contains reminiscences of Czech Christmas music) but this lacked a ready audience in the West. Another factor may have been that the second Cello Concerto had to wait 20 years after it was written before it received its first performance and the Concertino had to wait 25 years. The first Concerto was composed in 1930 and revised in 1939 and again in 1955. It is an impressive work but gives the impression of being worked-over and tampered with too much and some of the material is rather episodic. It was dedicated to the French cellist Pierre Fournier. The second Concerto, composed in 1944/45, is altogether more impressive. The material is more homogeneous and the musical argument clearer and more logical.  The Concertino…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Rossini: The Italian Girl in Algiers (various artists)

While the score is not consistently as good as that of Cinderella, for example, it merits attention and admiration. This recording is aimed at a different market to the traditional one, so highlights are as much as some opera buffs might want. With 78 minutes of music the selection offers a good overview of the work, though I doubt the wisdom of using overtures in recordings of vocal highlights. Chandos have wisely concentrated on the ensembles as Rossini, like Mozart, was at his best in these. The brilliant Act 1 Finale is a test for all the singers. Managing fast patter clearly while remaining in balance with the accelerating ensemble is a principal aim of performance in these operas, and this brilliant finale provides one of the great moments in opera. In contrast, the Cavatina from Act 2 (preceded by an exquisitely played cello solo) is a fine example of how the composer could handle the delicate tracery of slow bel canto.  Opera in English has its pitfalls.As a singing language it can’t hold a candle to Italian; where many open vowels allow the singers to extend notes. Translator David Parry has done very well, making textural sense as well…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Idomeneo (tenor: Richard Croft, mezzo: Bernada Fink, sopranos: Sunhae Im, Alexandrina Pendatchanska; Freiburger Barockorchester, RIAS Kammerchor/Jacobs)

After a disappointing Don Giovanni, Jacobs has come up with a wonderful Idomeneo. Perhaps it is the strong French streak that runs through Mozart’s dramma per musica that has brought out the best in him. Whatever the reason, there is much that is first-rate in this 3-disc set. Jacobs has wisely decided to include in the recording passages that were excised when Idomeneo was first performed in Munich in 1781. These include Elettra’s ‘D’Oreste, d’Aiace’ and Idomeneo’s ‘Torna la pace al core’. Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska delivers a riveting account of the former and American tenor Richard Croft offers a beautiful reading of the latter (although, as is often the case with Jacobs, the tempo is a little too brisk for my taste). Croft has a warm, natural voice and his contribution throughout is one of the recording’s great attributes. Sunhae Im, in the role of Ilia, is suitably sweet of voice but she has a limited tonal range. However, as a whole the principals are well chosen and the famous quartet is outstanding. The Freiburger Barockorchester offers thrilling and incisive playing and the RIAS Kammerchor captures superbly the full range of the choral writing. As an added bonus, this…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Complete String Quartets (Goldner String Quartet)

This is such an offering. The Goldner Quartet is drawn from members of the Australian Ensemble and led by Dene Olding, one of Australia’s most respected violinists. His choice of instrument speaks volumes: he plays a Joseph Guarnerius. The other members are Dimity Hall (violin), Irina Morozova (viola) and Julian Smiles (cello) and they combine to perfection. Beethoven’s 17 works for string quartet (including the ‘Grosse Fuge’ which was originally composed as the finale for another of the quartets) are heard here as a complete performance cycle, recorded at the Sydney Conservatorium between 19 August and 5 September, 2004. The recording quality is so fine that the sound of audience applause at the close of the first quartet comes as a real shock. There is absolutely no indication before then that this is a live recording. No coughs, no fidgeting, no latecomers – this is as all concerts should be but so rarely are. But the live nature of the recording is what marks it out. For as we progress through the eight CDs, through the relative simplicity of the first six quartets to the sudden leap in maturity of the three Razumovsky quartets, and finally to the profound gravid…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN Various works (piano: Maria João Pires, cello: Pavel Gomziakov)

Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires’s life has recently had some dramatic upheavals. Heart surgery and a move away from her native Portugal (where she felt vilified) to Brazil, have given the pianist, now in her early 60s, cause for reflection.  All of the music on this two-CD set was written during the last five years of Chopin’s life, when his health was failing, his relationship with novelist George Sand ended and he remained in exile from his beloved Poland.  Pires describes Chopin’s music of this period as containing memories – that is, when a dance rhythm occurs, Chopin is not writing a dance but about the memory of a dance previously held. It is this nostalgic feeling that dominates these performances and the result is outstanding.  In the hands of a lesser pianist the Sonata No. 3 can sound episodic and mechanical, particularly in the first movement which is crowded with new ideas and shifting harmonies. Pires’s wonderful phrasing allows the music to speak for itself and she has a seemingly intuitive understanding of the late composer’s wishes.  Likewise, the Mazurkas and Valses are outstanding and the Nocturnes (surely the most nostalgic of this composer’s output) stand comparison with Claudio…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MONTEVERDI L’Incoronazione di Poppea (soprano: Danielle de Niese, mezzo: Alice Coote; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Haim)

This DVD of the Glyndebourne production from 2008 has some outstanding singing, particularly from the two key protagonists, the ambitious courtesan Poppea (sung by Danielle de Niese and acted with seductive style) and her lover and eventual husband, the emperor Nerone (Alice Coote). The performance is distinguished too by the extraordinary vocal presence of Iestyn Davies in the role of Poppea’s lover Ottone. He is simply one of the finest counter-tenors I have heard in years. The performance is worth persevering with just for his revelatory work. Persevering is the right word. This Glyndebourne performance, directed by Canadian Robert Carsen and with sets and costumes by Michael Levine and Constance Hoffram, is one of the most boring productions I’ve seen. Memories of The Australian Opera’s production from the 1990s highlight the paucity of imagination of this production. Everything is red. Red, red, red. The sets consist for the most part of red curtains which open to reveal still more red curtains. The characters sit on stark modern red chairs in front of the curtains. Their costumes are all boring modern dress, which fail to alleviate the boredom of the sets. There is a lot of gender-bending in the performances, both…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BOTTESINI various works (double-bass: Thomas Martin, piano: Anthony Halstead, soprano: Jacquelyn F

The title track may have originally been performed with orchestra, and the name of the Italian composer Giovanni Bottesini does still turn up occasionally in concert programs, but this CD offers nothing longer than about 10 minutes and instrumentally features only double bass and piano, which makes it salon fare much more than music for the concert hall. Much of the action takes place comparatively high on the fretwork, which avoids the sound being too far down in the dumps, but gives it that air of a big instrument doing what it is told rather than what is natural. There are limits as to what even Paganini could have done with a double bass, restricted to relative slow motion. A rather plodding Air on the G String by Bach, perhaps, the only familiar tune here, but not the four songs included to show that Bottesini did have more than one string to his bow. Inevitably they come across as rather sad songs. Respects, though, to Naxos for acknowledging the music of Bottesini, and the earnest performers for giving him his due, but this is one of those CDs for aficionados. 

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…