January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHARPENTIER David and Jonathan (Soloists and Chorus of Pinchgut Orchestra, Cantillation, Orch of the Antipodes/Walker)

 This recording was made over four performances by Pinchgut Opera at Sydney’s City Recital Hall in 2008. It shows clearly the advantages – and limitations – of live performance recordings. The advantages are the feeling of immediacy, of being caught up in the excitement and danger of live performance. If one performer falters, the whole ensemble can fall. On audio, however, live performance can be distracting. Footsteps, movement of scenery, and of course audience noise, can take the edge from an otherwise immaculate performance. That does happen here intermittently. But only intermittently. In essence, this is another splendid outing from Pinchgut, which continues to offer esoteric operas our national company could not economically stage in the major Sydney and Melbourne theatres. This opera from 1688 features some of Charpentier’s most unshackled writing, free from earlier performance conventions. It’s performed here on Baroque instruments while the supple voices of the principals – especially the outstanding Baroque tenor Anders J Dahlin as David, Sara MacIiver as his beloved Jonathan and baritone Dean Robinson as Jonathan’s father Saul – tackle the special demands of this period’s music with relish. Some studio recordings have finer polish than this, but few match its impetuous drama.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MARCO DALL’AQUILA Pieces for Lute (lute: Paul O’Dette)

This is compensated for by having just the one performer, whose special project this is. Some tracks run for less than a minute, so you have to be quick to register whether you have just rushed through an adaptation of something by, say, Clément Janequin, or have already done that and are now back in the Ricercars with the main man here, Marco dall’Aquila. It was hard even for Harmonia Mundi to get everything into the booklet, which, with all the usual translations, is too big for its slot in the handsome digipak. No trimming of margins here. The dedicated and artful O’Dette has chosen as many solo works as he can fit onto one CD, from the music of a specific period when the lute was a key part of the instrumentation of the age. His sound is echoey, bearing sympathetic resonances that do not last long, but are there all the time, usually for longer than the individual pluckings. This texture of sound does have rather a monotonous effect by the time you get about a third of the way through, unless you are a confirmed lute-o-phile. You need to be a specialist to pick out all the…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH Six Partitas (conductor: Vladimir Ashkenazy)

  Those who enjoyed the former will not be disappointed by the latter. That same self-effacing pleasantness and distinguished musicality resounds in his Partitas. His Bach is crisp, tasteful and aristocratic. There’s no question Ashkenazy reveres Bach – at all times stepping politely aside and letting the music speak for itself. At its best, this produces a simple, unaffected elegance in his playing, and a light, spirited texture in the faster movements. At its worst, however, his no-frills style simply falls flat. The Sarabande of the first Partita is given, to my mind, a perfunctory reading; the hauntingly simple, Goldberg-like, Allemande of the fourth sounds almost sight-read; and the exciting opening movement to the fifth is almost comically undramatic. The agonisingly beautiful Sarabande of the sixth is sweet, but lacking in pathos. In the rare moments when Ashkenazy does attempt to impose his personality onto the music, one can feel that the Baroque is not his natural idiom. In the stately opening to the second Partita, for example, his attempts at dramatic contrast fail to convince. And in the trickier ornamentation and finger work passages, one can hear a looseness more appropriate to the romantic repertoire. Those accustomed to the…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TAUBERT Piano Concertos Nos 1, 2 ROSENHAIN Piano Concerto in D minor (piano: Howard Shelley; Tasmanian SO)

Wilhelm Taubert (1811-1891) was a friend of Mendelssohn and a fully paid up member of the Berlin musical establishment, despite Mendelssohn’s rather lukewarm opinion of his music. The First Concerto (1833) is, as Schumann noted, very similar to Mendelssohn’s own First Concerto – uncomfortably so, I think – even down to the facile charm and absence of breaks between movements. The Second Concerto appeared 40 years later and, while its structure is somewhat different, sounds much the same and must have seemed very old-fashioned. I found its most endearing moment the soaring cello theme in the unusual andante. Jacob Rosenhain (1813-1894) wrote his D minor Concerto in the 1840s and it’s made of altogether sterner stuff. It’s more Schumannesque, ironically, because Schumann seemed as lukewarm about Rosenhain’s later output as Mendelssohn was about Taubert’s. I found it equally charming but more dramatic, poetic and generally interesting, with an especially winsome central andante which seems more “developed” than Taubert’s – and more inspired orchestration generally. Naturally, Howard Shelley has long been in his element in this repertoire and the TSO acquit themselves well in what has virtually become their “niche”.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ROSSO Italian Baroque Arias (soprano: Patricia Petibon, Venice Baroque Orchestra/Marcon)

In truth, though, Petibon is in a far more sensible mode since her signing to Deutsche Grammophon than in the heady days of her Virgin Classics contract. While fans of her kookier ventures might miss the hilarity of those recordings, it is heartening to see her artistry mature without losing its individuality. Petibon’s vocal idiosyncrasies, albeit toned down here, remain an acquired taste. She’s happy to whisper, shout, wail or giggle on (or off) pitch, and her gamine mannerisms can be a touch excessive, but this is all underpinned by rigorous musicianship and a vivid, spectacularly agile soprano. Not surprisingly, she assails Handelian hits with panache, gaily tossing off fioritura and inventive, often stratospheric, ornaments in showpieces like Tornami a vagheggiar, while bringing pathos to Alcina’s lengthy lament, Ah, mio cor. Yet it is in the more obscure selections that Petibon really excels, whether sustaining the soft, languid lines of Scarlatti’s Caldo sangue or tripping her way through Sartorio’s Quando voglio, the jaunty jewel of an aria which opens the disc. Aided and abetted by the bright playing of the Venice Baroque Orchestra under Andrea Marcon, Petibon has produced in Rosso further testament to her inimitable artistry. Devotees will delight…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Mad Scenes (soprano: Natalie Dessay)

Here is Natalie Dessay to prove it with half a dozen demonstrations from operas such as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Bellini’s I Puritani, Verdi’s Hamlet, Bernstein’s Candide and Meyerbeer’s Le Pardon de Ploërmel. The liner notes provide a kind of potted analysis of each of the French soprano’s subjects, in case we think all madnesses are identical. Given the form she displays, we expect Dessay’s voice to be all over the place at a moment’s notice, but there it is, on the note every time. Are there any operas in which the heroine’s madness is anything other than deeply tragic? Donizetti was one composer who should know, starting and ending this CD with the two longest items on it, but finding only anguish for Dessay to sing about, even though she is allowed two minutes longer to keep looking than she is credited with in the notes. One listener’s sparkling coloratura is another listener’s silly noises, proving that a singer can have more control over their voice than they know what to usefully do with. But the rather debatable attraction of hearing the drama of over-the-top theatrical madness has been determined to be the selling point of this CD, and…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ORFF Carmina Burana (singers: Petibon, Bunz, Gerhaher; Bavarian RSO/Harding)

The work’s primitive ostinati and pseudo-mediaevalism also appealed to the fascist mentality, making it the musical equivalent of Albert Speer’s monstrous architecture for Hitler’s proposed capital Germania, or Leni Riefenstahl’s Nuremburg rally documentaries. As a teenager, I always found it among the most exciting scores ever composed. We’re all young once… This performance is relatively low-powered, especially in comparison to Muti’s Philharmonia and Frühbeck de Burgos’s high-octane accounts, which feature the greatly lamented Lucia Popp and Arleen Augér respectively (both EMI). The orchestra sound here is quite recessed, which lessens its contribution to the essential velocity of this piece. That the orchestra concerned is the Bavarian Radio Symphony, who, of all ensembles, should be at home in this “Bavarian” music, is all the more regrettable. The results are much more satisfactory in the quieter, more poetic passages, of which there are many. The soloists are more than adequate, with Patricia Petibon (normally more associated with Chabrier and Poulenc!) coping well with the ethereal heights of Dulcissime; Hans Werner Bunz does his dying swan with all the requisite grotesquerie but it’s the uncanny resemblance of baritone Christian Gerhaher’s voice to that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau that stopped me in my tracks. Nonetheless,…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: DEBUSSY • RAVEL • DUTILLEUX String quartets (Arcanto String Quartet)

They have been recorded by virtually every famous (and not so famous) quartet. The Arcantos bring a special distinction to everything they play (no wonder, with Antje Weithaas and Tabea Zimmermann – both internationally recognised soloists in their own right – as first violin and viola). Here they create a convincing contrast between the quartets. Debussy’s is surely the most Romantic music he ever composed, and the slow movement is played with alternating passion and tenderness to wonderful effect; the drama of the rest is fully realised. Curiously, both works have pizzicatos; the Ravel scherzo (beloved of television producers as current affairs show theme music) is taken with extra bite. In the slow movement I can only describe their exquisite performance as the musical equivalent of silken tresses. The Ravel is essentially more Gallic and cooler than the Debussy, except for the intense rapt climax. The Dutilleux, subtitled Ainsi la nuit, (“Thus at night”) with its Ligeti-like epigrammatic movements, is, perhaps, a strange choice. Composed in the mid-1970s, it is, nonetheless, a fascinating work, with what I can only call a suspenseful ambience, especially in the rather sinister fourth movement.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUBERT Piano Sonatas D958, 959, 960 (piano: Alfredo Perl)

The lack of catchy nicknames should not leave you with any doubts as to the significance of these three mighty works from Schubert’s final years. Any one of them is enough to confirm the man’s status as a creative giant. To turn them out together as quickly as he did leaves you looking back in time trying to work out what secret could have been held by one so young that enabled him to leave so much. Unpublished as they were for more than a decade after Schubert had passed away, the set is issued here some five years after Perl came to them with a reputation based solidly on his mastery of the complete set of Beethoven’s sonatas. These three, though, are far from being an extension to those 32. They are a different proposition altogether, in ways that the grandiose descriptions included with this double CD pack try to define, but do not quite succeed. For his part, given his commitment to understand what the composer was seeking to achieve by immersing himself in these scripts, Perl offers no self-enhancing insights into what Schubert was really trying to tell us. Instead, whatever we might usefully want to discover…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Tallis Fantasia; Greensleeves; The Lark Ascending; Dives and Lazarus; Flos Campi; The Wasps; Serenade to Music; Songs of Travel; On Wenlock Edge (Various artists)

 Compiled from many top recordings made between 1962-94 and with leading exponents of the composer’s music, the full breadth of his oeuvre is on display. From the open spaces of the Norfolk Rhapsody No 1, the buoyant The Wasps, to the folksy arrangement of Greensleeves. For those new to this music, EMI have included the benchmark recording of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, conduced by Sir John Barbirolli. Most devotees of English music have this recording and so should you! Rarely has the great score been so effectively realised than under his masterly direction. The composer’s other classic miniature, The Lark Ascending is (like Barber’s Adagio) the work that most defines the composer in the popular mind. Bernard Haitink, the LPO and violinist Sarah Chang turn in a capable performance, but cannot match Hugh Bean with Sir Adrian Boult in ’67. Sir David Willcocks leads us through Five Variants on ‘Dives and Lazarus’, and Vernon Handley looks after The Wasps and Flos Campi. Then there are the vocal works. In On Wenlock Edge, Ian Partridge is right at home in the spare settings for piano quintet of A.E. Housman’s poems. Anthony Rolfe-Johnson is equally comfortable in the Songs…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Arias for Male Soprano (soprano: Michael Maniaci, Boston Baroque/Pearlman)

Today, we can only guess what the true castrati may have sounded like. Today’s falsetto or counter-tenors give perhaps the closest approximation of the sound. A recording does exist of one of the last castratos from the Vatican Choir of the late 19th century. It gives an aged and ghastly sound which could not be representative of a castrato in his prime. Michael Maniaci describes himself as a “male soprano” rather than a counter-tenor, as he says this is his natural voice. Most counter-tenors are in fact baritones (or, occasionally, tenors) who can produce a sustained and strong falsetto. Michael Maniaci says “my voice seems to sit most naturally in the soprano register. While my vocal cords lengthened and thickened somewhat, they didn’t do so to the extent that most men experience”. So here are arias for castrati from Idomeneo, Lucio Silla, La Clemenza di Tito and from Exsultate, Jubilate, sung in a style which may – just may – approximate what Mozart’s audience would have heard from that era’s superstar eunuchs. I don’t find Michael Maniaci’s voice a naturally beautiful one, but the artistry is evident, and the accompaniment from Martin Pearlman’s Baroque orchestra is exemplary.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Piano Concertos Nos 20, 27 (piano: Evgeny Kissin; Kremerata Baltica)

The youthful chamber orchestra is as much a feature of this recording as the soloist. I had to replay the first minute of track 3 to convince myself they hadn’t used synthesised strings, so perfectly was it all synced and timed. Admittedly, the woodwinds do give them away as humanoids, but on the whole they play splendidly. Before you press the play button to track 1, sit yourself somewhere quiet, draw the blinds and make sure you’re holding someone’s hand. The hair-raising opening to No. 20 will just about summon the ghost of the Commendatore from Don Giovanni. Kissin first performed this piece for his orchestral debut at age 10! He plays it now, almost 30 years later, with masterful confidence, and a crisp, meaty touch. This was allegedly Beethoven’s favourite Mozart concerto, and we are blessed to hear Ludwig’s thrilling cadenza to this work, showcasing Kissin’s virtuosity. In the slower movements, Kissin’s playing is so bare and simple you almost wish someone would bring the poor boy a coat. No doubt Mozart would have preferred the melodies, in his own words, to “flow like honey”. But Kissin’s naïve touch does convey something very delicate and vulnerable in the music….

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: DVORÁK Rusalka (singers: Martínez, Jovanovich, Schelomianski, Diadkova; The Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Belohlávek)

 Glyndebourne’s Rusalka made headlines last year when soprano Ana María Martínez took a tumbleinto the orchestra pit, escaping injury only by landing on a cellist instead of the floor. She was back on the proverbial horse for the rest of the season, however, and now we have a souvenir of those performances, with Martínez in pretty and plaintive voice as the doomed nymph. Her vibrato won’t be to all tastes, but ultimately this is a fine, persuasive portrayal. That said, she’s very nearly outshone by her colleagues. Brandon Jovanovich cuts a dashing figure as the Prince, singing with clarion freshness, while two Russians – Mischa Schelomianski as Vodník and Larissa Diadkova as Ježibaba – bring idiomatic colour and lyricism to their roles. Bit parts are admirably filled across the board; the three Wood Nymphs are especially impressive, but the star of this show is conductor Jirí Belohlávek. His shimmering reading revels in both the fairytale magic and the humanity of Dvoák’s opera, drawing from the London Philharmonic playing of revelatory and refined romanticism. This set inevitably includes some stage and audience noise, but this is relatively unobtrusive and, especially as weighed against Blohlávek’s mighty contribution, ought not to deter any but…

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