July 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BRITTEN: Cello Symphony; Symphonic Suite from Gloriana; Four Sea Interludes (Paul Watkins vc; Robert Murray t; BBC Phil/Gardner)

The Cello Symphony was one of Britten’s few substantial pieces of abstract symphonic music, and rather than dubbing it a concerto he places the soloist on more equal footing within the orchestral texture. The orchestration is just as vivid as his music for voice, but it is also one of the composer’s most fierce and challenging scores. The Chandos sound gives much-needed warmth to this angular, thorny terrain. The cello is less forward – and more introspective – than in Pieter Wispelwey’s recent recording, maintaining Britten’s desired balance. By the same token, Paul Watkins doesn’t have quite as much bite as the work’s dedicatee Rostropovich in the 1965 premiere recording conducted by Britten. Watkins maintains edge-of-your-seat energy throughout, particularly in the gutsy Presto inquieto where his virtuosic flair is matched by profound lyricism. The third-movement cadenza and its burnished trumpet obbligato are a highlight. In the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Edward Gardner expertly explores the contrast in Britten’s palette, most effectively in the limpid precision of the BBC Philharmonic strings. The North Sea’s vast beauty, the lilt of maritime village life, and the underlying warning of what the harsh elements may have in store – all these are…

July 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TCHAIKOVSKY: Hamlet; The Tempest; Romeo and Juliet (Simon Bolivar SO/Dudamel)

This performance of Tchaikovsky’s music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest may well inspire the listener to exclaim “O brave new world that hath such people in it”, but I doubt whether the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture would provoke a similar reaction in this surprisingly staid excursion by firebrand conductor Gustavo Dudamel. To take one example, the canonic exchanges between the lower woodwinds and the strings in the first fight sequence lack the needed tension. The Tempest fares better. The exquisite evocation of the magic island and surrounding ocean is simply ravishing and well captured by Dudamel and co. Likewise the love music, initially “tender and restrained” (to quote the sleeve notes), gradually becomes almost incandescent – and certainly more dramatic than the equivalent scene in the play. Here the French horn sounds a little tentative but strings and woodwinds are alert and Dudamel certainly knows how to milk the climaxes.  Unfortunately, the liner notes by Simon Callow are written from his perspective as an actor, which is hardly helpful to listeners unfamiliar with the work. I’ve left Hamlet until last because I think it’s the weakest of the three works here – the stormy rhetoric was better handled by Tchaikovsky…

July 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RACHMANINOV: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; Piano Concerto No 2 (piano: Yuja Wang; Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Abbado)

Is there really room for yet another recording of these two Rachmaninov warhorses? For Yuja, yes. Her playing is fresh and wondrously alive, in both pieces. And Claudio Abbado’s conducting is astonishing, delineated with absolute chamber-like clarity. Wang combines strength and delicacy, but most appealing in her playing is her sharp articulation of phrasing and that indefinable stamp of pianistic authority. In the Rhapsody the famous 18th variation has all the limpid beauty it demands, and the 24th accentuates the fantastical, swaggering pseudo-Orientalism of its finale. Her final dying notes have all the wry sarcasm which so cleverly and affectionately mocks all that has gone before, delivered with an offhand grace I’ve seldom heard before. It’s totally delicious stuff. And the Second, deservedly the most famous of Rachmaninov’s concertos, is played with a poise and steel which totally belies the impish pianist’s image on the CD cover.  These special readings seem to come from live performances – the Concerto gives this away with a snatch of applause at the end, but there is no other indication of this. The sound quality is as detailed as the finest studio recording; both the piano and orchestra are caught in awesome fidelity. This…

July 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart’s Sister

This fanciful biopic casts light on Mozart’s older sister Maria Anna “Nannerl”, a fine singer and instrumentalist in her own right whose ambitions naturally took a backseat to the boy wonder’s prodigious gifts. Based in part on the correspondence of their demanding father Leopold Mozart, the account is a quintessentially French one set in the 1760s when the children are aged 10 and 15, following the imagined events that unfold during performing tours to Paris and Versailles. Nannerl’s journey centres on two fictionalised encounters with French royalty. The first, with the cloistered, illegitimate 12-year-old daughter of Louis XV, echoes the tragedy of her own thwarted potential. As Louise de France, Lisa Féret is blandly benign and monochrome, making it difficult to care about the rapport between the two young girls, who are in fact real-life sisters. Meanwhile, the teenage Nannerl’s sexual awakening becomes a focus with the help of the brooding Dauphin’s smouldering gaze (Clovis Fouin). The attraction is inextricably linked with his intense admiration of her music, freeing her creative spirit – temporarily, at least. She is forced to dress as a boy in order to consort with the prince in public, but this narrative tool, again designed to…

July 7, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SERAPHIM: Arias (Sara Macliver; Various choirs and orchestras)

Seraphim takes its name from the opening Handel aria praising the highest order of angels. Sara Macliver, appropriately, is one of Australia’s most angelic-voiced sopranos, and this selection of recordings old and new presents a roughly chronological traversal of joyful and gentle music from the Baroque to popular music. ABC Classics’ ten-year portrait of the Perth-born singer comprises just over half a disc of new recordings, with the first section given over to jubilant Baroque arias in which her radiant personality shines through. The title track is elegant and buoyant under the Orchestra of the Antipodes and Brett Weymark, Macliver tossing off coloratura passages with brilliance and precision, matched by trumpet soloist Leanne Sullivan. Her diction, however, isn’t always as clear as her melodic lines. But in Purcell’s Hark! The Echoing Air from The Fairy Queen, she channels Emma Kirkby in her prime. Less convincing are the two contemporary offerings: a stiflingly smooth rendition of Bernstein’s Somewhere – no swell, no surge of emotion – and a similarly unremarkable Joni Mitchell cover. There’s no question Macliver’s silvery tone and supreme musicianship are a joy to hear, but Seraphim is all green pastures (none greener than Canteloube’s Baïlero) without any of…

July 7, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PERGOLESI: Stabat Mater (Anna Netrebko; Marianna Pizzolato; Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Pappano)

Just when you thought the market for Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater had reached saturation point, here’s Deutsche Grammophon with yet another. Although it’s called A Tribute to Pergolesi, the title could as easily have been A Vehicle for Anna Netrebko, since the Russian soprano is surely its raison d’être. The repertoire is a surprising choice for Netrebko, but this recording is remarkably effective. Netrebko’s voice is about a size larger than one would usually expect in this repertoire, and lacks the pinpoint precision of a typical Baroque specialist, but she wields it with such ardency and lustrous, expansive sound that she’s hard to resist. Young contralto Marianna Pizzolato is less gripping but no less lovely. Underpinned by Pappano’s elegant, sympathetic conducting, the two singers make a striking pair.  The Stabat Mater itself is beautifully, if not sensationally performed, but what really clinches this tribute are the less familiar secular cantatas which precede the main event. Pizzolato’s limpid account of Questo è il piano is a minor revelation, and Netrebko’s fiery Nel chiuso centro is a major one – operatic yet not overblown, it’s a 16-minute précis of what makes this soprano such a captivating performer and thrilling proof that Pergolesi’s talent…

July 7, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BARBER • DEBUSSY • BLOCH: Music for Cello and Piano (David Berlin vc; Len Vorster p)

David Berlin and Len Vorster deliver the music superbly, with dazzling playing of the highest order. Along with Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber was the composer who did the most to secure the place of American composition during the middle of the 20th century. His award-winning Cello Sonata is a compelling work in which his musical ideas are strong and well presented. The effective contrast with Bloch’s From Jewish Life (1924) is dramatic. This is Jewish music par excellence, and its distinctive character, the voice of the cantor, resonates throughout the work. In Suite populaire espagnole by Manuel de Falla, we have another strong contrast with the other works. After the troubled voice of Bloch’s cantor, the sunny, invigorating music of Spain is dramatic. The six sections of the work run the gamut of the composer’s accessible style. Staying in Spain, Madrigal (1915) by Enrique Granados, has more in common with Bloch’s piece. Based on one of his songs, it is a passionately wrought aria for cello. It was also one of the last things he wrote before he drowned. Toward the end of Debussy’s life, the composer tried to re-establish a link back to classical French composition. One work exploring…

June 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Herrmann: Psycho Suite; Echoes; Souvenirs de Voyage (Tippett Quartet)

At first glance this disc of chamber music might appeal exclusively to film music buffs. Upon closer inspection this is not so, especially when only ten minutes are devoted to music derived from a film score. The principal work on the CD is the Souvenirs de Voyage, said to be inspired by Vaughan Williams’s setting of On Wenlock Edge. I also hear the mellifluous breath of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll in this music. It is a fine work, worthy of more regular attention in the concert hall. Herrmann was one of America’s finest film composers, certainly the composer with the most original style. Whereas most film composers use the standard orchestral ensemble to canvas their musical ideas, Herrmann was always seeking unusual groupings: in Journey to the Centre of the Earth for example, he created primeval effects using five harps, four organs and a serpent. The music holds as powerfully today as when it was written in 1959. In Psycho, he went as spare as he could, using a string orchestra to produce the riveting and driving music required for the drama. The taut, astringent figures are perfectly at home in the milieu of the contemporary string quartet, which is why…

June 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: A LESSON IN LOVE: Songs by Schubert, Schumann, Debussy et al (soprano: Kate Royal; piano: Malcolm Martineau)

Two previous solo recordings by the British soprano Kate Royal displayed her broad musical interests and imaginative programming. Her new CD is equally thoughtful. Rather than structure a recital in the usual “four groups plus two encores” format, Royal has devised a story arc for her album. This “lesson in love” concerns a young girl’s journey from the anticipation of romance, meeting Mr Right, their marriage, and his ultimate betrayal. Opening with the little-known Waitin’ by William Bolcom, Royal fits many well-loved songs into the scenario, including Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, Duparc’s Extase, Britten’s setting of the folksong O Waly, Waly and three songs from Schumann’s Myrthen. Waitin’ is sung again at the very end by the now worldly-wise protagonist, this time with a more pensive and knowing attitude. Most of the 28 songs fit the storyline neatly; only a couple, such as Danny Boy, seem to come from out of nowhere. Royal’s soprano is surprisingly strong, though not naturally warm. She hails from a line of British singers that includes Felicity Lott, Margaret Price and the Australian Elsie Morison. Occasionally at forte her very top register takes on a raw quality, although in Gretchen her high notes are perfectly…

June 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL: Music for the Royal Fireworks; Water Music Suites Nos 1-2 (TSO/Abbott)

Under the baton of Graham Abbott, one of our greatest Handelians, this tired old coupling gleams anew. Ideally sized for this repertoire, the 47-piece Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra plays on modern instruments but with the textural clarity of Baroque-styled phrasing and performing practices. Bright strings and well-balanced brass and winds bring commanding flamboyance to La Réjouissance in Fireworks with rhythmic drive maintaining interest. The refined, springy quality of the menuets and other regal dance forms highlight the contrasts between delicate winds and fuller orchestral sections with timpani. In the F Major Water Music suite the ear is drawn to the lively horn ornamentation, while the D Major hornpipe’s impressive antiphonal trumpets and horns are the mark of distinction in Abbott’s reading, full of personality and an airy charm that buoys us down the Thames. My taste in this repertoire veers towards risk-takingly earthy period-instrument performances, particularly those of Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel (who would have brought the French onion dip to the river party), and Canada’s Aradia Ensemble, both recordings including the third suite in G Major. Abbott and the TSO may lack the blazing energy and thrilling variety of these readings, but the performance is never tentative and certainly…

June 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: GRIEG • BARTOK • R STRAUSS: Violin Sonatas (violin: Vilde Frang; piano: Michail Lifits)

This disc introduces an impressive duo. Perhaps “introduces” is not the correct term for 25-year-old Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang, already a star of the European festival circuit. Anne-Sophie Mutter chose her to play second fiddle (literally) in the Bach Double Concerto on a recent tour. Frang has also recorded Sibelius and Prokofiev concertos, but this is the first time we’ve heard her in a chamber setting and the result is compelling.  In the Grieg and Strauss sonatas, Frang is accompanied by another young virtuoso. Lifits was born in Uzbekistan in 1982, and won the Busoni International Piano Competition in 2009. As a team they achieve real symbiosis: listen to the way they press forward and pull back in the 3/4 movement of the Grieg sonata, sharpening each nuance and finding the precise textural weight in perfect sync. Their program is attractive and far from hackneyed. Grieg’s Third Violin Sonata is his chamber masterpiece, but I had not heard the youthful First. These artists reveal it to be the exuberant outpouring of an inspired and vigorous young composer. Frang and Lifits also find warmth and tenderness in the young Strauss’s Sonata. In between, Frang gives a strong, detailed rendition of Bartók’s…

June 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HAYDN: Piano Sonatas Vol 2 Nos 49, 32, 50, 19, 2 (piano: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet)

Haydn’s set of about 62 piano sonatas forms section XVI of the enormous Hoboken catalogue of his complete works. I was listening to one with a work colleague the other day. He remarked that they really are inventive and delightful pieces. That seems to be the case with this category of Haydn’s output: people are mildly surprised that they should enjoy them so much.  Personally I think they are right up there with Mozart’s sonatas. They’re full of invention and wit, some movements pensive and reflective, some dazzling in the extreme, all full of sophisticated joy. This music is also strong enough to shine in any format – harpsichord, fortepiano or modern piano. It’s the latter that French virtuoso Jean-Efflam Bavouzet chooses – a Yamaha Premium Grand, in fact – to present what he describes as “the boundless treasures of this sublime music”. Typical (if any can be said to be typical) of these wonderful pieces is the Sonata No 50 in D. This is one of the best-known and most often performed. The first movement is a bravura allegro, and Bavouzet carries it off with panache. The slow movement recalls the French overture with its dotted rhythms and stately elegance. It leads directly into the Finale, which is a departure, via…

June 21, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CPE BACH: Cello Concertos (Truls Mork vc; Les Violons du Roy/Labadie)

Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach was the second-eldest surviving son of Johann Sebastian, and a highly individual composer for his time. The abrupt contrasts in his music, and the emotional intensity of his slow movements in particular, point the way ahead to Beethoven. From 1738 to 1767 Bach was employed in the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia. The king was musically conservative, preferring the music of Quantz. Perhaps this is why the works Bach wrote outside of his royal duties turned out so adventurous. The three cello concertos were composed in quick succession, between 1750 and 1753. As Simon Heighes’s informative note explains, musicologists long thought these concertos were arrangements of other works, as they also exist in versions for flute and keyboard. Only recently has critical consensus changed – there is now evidence to suggest the cello concertos were the original versions. They certainly sound it here, played by the brilliant Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk. The solo parts are showy and difficult but undeniably idiomatic. Mørk is accompanied by Les Violons du Roy, a small string orchestra based in Quebec, who recently released the best recording I know of Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations. These terrific musicians respond to all…