January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL Concerti Grossi, Opus 6 (Australian Brandenburg Orchestra; harpsichord and direction: Paul Dyer)

Statistics prove nothing, and what applies today may not have applied at all three centuries ago, but it is unusual to have a set as large as this to refer to in one place. Two CDs are just about big enough to hold all 31 movements of the 12 Concerti Grossi of Handel’s Opus 6, without any evidence of tampering with their content. Everything here attests to the fecundity of Handel’s imagination. Every variation you might think of is no more than his starting point, and from start to finish of this impressive undertaking by the ABO, there is not a dull moment, never a hint of repetition. Of course, without paying close attention to the detailed playlist, you will not stand a chance of being able to trace all of this sequentially from one concerto to the next. But in terms of the overall effect, that hardly matters at all. Wherever you are within it, what you find yourself listening to is fresh, vigorous even when introspective, exquisitely played and a real joy to be hearing. If you think of Baroque music as being yawn-inducingly dull fare, this might just change your mind. You owe it to your aural…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VARIOUS COMPOSERS Homage (violin and viola: James Ehnes)

Every generation there is a new high-water mark in virtuoso violin playing set by a recording artist. Heifetz, Julian Sitkovetsky, Michael Rabin, Gidon Kremer and others each took it upon themselves to create cutting-edge recorded documents that revealed the advances in technique they had achieved, and here is the equivalent CD of our time.  James Ehnes takes virtuosity to a new level in Homage, playing on 12 different priceless instruments from David Fulton’s collection – quite likely the greatest private collection in history. All up it includes six Strads, two Del Gesu Guarneris (including Menuhin’s Lord Wilton), as well as a Pietro Guarneri, and violas by Gasparo da Salo, Andrea Guarneri and Guadagnini. Aware of the history-making opportunity afforded to him by having access to these instruments, Ehnes has risen to make a classic violin recording.  Matching the cleanness of Heifetz, but with a richer sound and a more varied tonal palette than all of the above, and with an astounding and instinctive melodic gift that only Kremer could rival, Ehnes has staked out a unique place in the violin-playing firmament. If people think that this may be a result of the wonders of digital editing, there is even a DVD…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN: Études BEETHOVEN Sonata Op. 106 ‘Hammerklavier’; Liszt: Paganini Étude no.3 ‘La Campanella’ MUSTO Improvisation and Fugue (piano: Nobuyuki Tsujii)

This disc, recorded during the competition, contains some of the performances that so impressed the judges. Chopin’s Études are ideal competition pieces with their combination of technical and musical demands and Tsujii’s performance is generally equal to both challenges. No. 1, with its glittering arpeggios and No. 2 with its chromatic scales both demonstrate his remarkable technical facility without displaying much musical subtlety. By No.3, however, both elements combine wonderfully and Nos. 4, 5 and 6 are equally well balanced. Beethoven’s Hammerklavier is a much greater challenge for any pianist. Although Tsujii is absolutely comfortable with its technical demands, his performance does at times lose focus. In the Adagio, for example, he displays a remarkably delicate touch but his performance lacks momentum at some crucial moments, leaving it sounding episodic. Liszt’s La Campanella, is a different matter altogether, revealing his talent in full. Not a note is out of place, technically difficult passages are rendered with insouciance making the overall effect dazzling. Finally, the performance of John Musto’s Improvisation and Fugue, won Tsujii the prize for the best performance of a new work. A strong debut from a formidable talent who promises much.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: NYMAN The Piano Concerto; MGV (piano: Kathryn Stott; Michael Nyman Band and Orchestra; Royal Liverpool PO/Nyman)

Argo, under Andrew Cornall, in the late 1980s and ‘90s produced an extraordinary array of historic recordings of American and English minimalists such as Bryars, Nyman, Torke, Kernis and Turnage. Much of the Argo back catalogue is now being released by Decca as digital downloads, although this CD, along with the other Nyman Argo recordings, is being released on Michael Nyman’s own label. Nyman initially studied Baroque music and much of his music is based on the same structures as one would find in Purcell. His breakthrough came when he played the Mozart “Catalogue Aria” from Don Giovanni in a style reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis, and realised that the structures of Classical and Baroque music continued to function perfectly when combined with the impetus and energetic thrust of rock and roll. In a way he got lucky with one truly great idea that produced a career’s worth of pieces of which the visceral MGV is one of his best. The title stands for Musique à Grand Vitesse (High Speed Music) and the powerful momentum it produces creates an amazing effect. Meanwhile The Piano Concerto, drawn from his ingenious film score for The Piano that made his name a global…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: NYMAN The Piano Concerto, MGV (piano: Kathryn Stott; Michael Nyman Band and Orchestra; Royal Liverpool PO/Nyman)

Argo, under Andrew Cornall, in the late 1980s and ‘90s produced an extraordinary array of historic recordings of American and English minimalists such as Bryars, Nyman, Torke, Kernis and Turnage. Much of the Argo back catalogue is now being released by Decca as digital downloads, although this CD, along with the other Nyman Argo recordings, is being released on Michael Nyman’s own label. Nyman initially studied Baroque music and much of his music is based on the same structures as one would find in Purcell. His breakthrough came when he played the Mozart “Catalogue Aria” from Don Giovanni in a style reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis, and realised that the structures of Classical and Baroque music continued to function perfectly when combined with the impetus and energetic thrust of rock and roll. In a way he got lucky with one truly great idea that produced a career’s worth of pieces of which the visceral MGV is one of his best. The title stands for Musique à Grand Vitesse (High Speed Music) and the powerful momentum it produces creates an amazing effect. Meanwhile The Piano Concerto, drawn from his ingenious film score for The Piano that made his name a global…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Sweden: Between Triol and Sextondel (various artists)

The title translates as “Between Triplet and Semiquaver”, so no need to go looking for Triol and Sextondel on a map of Sweden. Well, unless… The violin takes precedence, instrumentally, and immediately makes you think “fiddle” rather than “violin”. One or two of the other instruments look interesting, you would not want to get your foot caught. The sound characteristics initially suggest what you might expect to hear if listening to traditional country music from other northerly places like Eire or Scotland, but perhaps that connection is innocently set adrift on the vaguely nautical wash that drifts its way in and out of one track, and then another. These are mainly traditional airs, a few composed or enhanced by the musicians themselves, who represent different generations and origins. The project reflects considerable dedication to their mission of tracking down music wherever it may crop up in any corner of Sweden, and their treatment of what they have found is more compelling than the concept might suggest. There is something curiously haunting about the consolidated sound that this overall blend of elements generates, capturing a real atmosphere, a sense of distance, far horizons and remoteness in space and time from any…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH Toccatas and Fantasias for Organ (organ: Bernard Foccroulle)

As a result this record of the Belgian organist Bernard Foccroulle playing Bach‘s most famous works for organ came as a real surprise to me. Gone are the emphatic tempi and exaggerated gestures, the gluey fingering, the creakiness and delay of the larger pipes and the bloated sense of music-making swimming in enormously reverberant acoustics that gave the worst organ playing its reputation as having an overblown sense of grandeur. However here we have tight, clean articulation that sacrifices no sense of scale in its gestures, married to bright, clear registers, all of which brings everything back to a more human scale. It feels like two centuries of dust has been blown off and Bach finally sounds like himself again and not just a test piece for subwoofers for the most expensive stereo in the hi-fi showroom. I’d have to say I enjoyed this more than any other organ CD in memory. For one, my ears remained fresh throughout, and second the quality of the recording is superb. I’d have to say based on this recording Bernard Foccroulle is the finest organist I have ever heard. To paraphrase Haydn’s compliment to Mozart – “he has great skill but more importantly…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SALZEDO Trois Morceaux CAPLET Divertissements IBERT Six Pièces (harp: Lavinia Meijer)

Plenty of good work here to satisfy harp lovers. This is thoughtful music with enough substance for Lavinia Meijer to promote herself and her instrument in just the way that her CD notes indicate she set out to do when she was eight, and the unique qualities of the harp first entranced her. She may have plucked a good few strings since then, but Meijer is still young and there must have been a considerable temptation for her backers and supporters to give her the glamour treatment.  With these French works, however, she proves that her current rising reputation is based on solid musicianship, and the image projected by this package is welcome for its restraint. Each of the three pieces has more to it than is often the case with material used for the purposes of harp recital. They may all be 20th century vintage, but none of them would count as experimental. Rather, the overall effect is generally subdued and understated, with an air of deliberation in exploring the capabilities of the instrument. Thematic developments are given the space they need to take place in their own time, without being forced. In the end, this is not an attempt by Meijer to dazzle…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VARIOUS COMPOSERS (The Swingle Singers)

The a capella group The Swingle Singers were originally a French vocal group, founded by Ward Swingle back in 1962, but this 4-disc set represents the 1990s output of a later ensemble, based in London. This excruciatingly twee group has lasted more than four decades. Travel to the wrong parts of the world and you’re likely to still run the danger of hearing them in concert. They just will not give up on their quest to merge the traditions of American jazz scat-singing and European classical music, and lose the best parts of both along the way. The four albums in this set are A Capella Amadeus: A Mozart Celebration, and although Mozart had a strong sense of humour,I doubt if he would have been amused by what the Swingles do to the Overture to The Magic Flute, or to any of the other selections from his operas, piano concertos and sacred music. Bach Hits Back is the Swingle’s second attempt to destroy JS Bach’s reputation. Sadly, despite the title, Bach cannot hit back. The third album, 1812, is a live concert disc which tackles Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Gershwin and even Lennon/McCartney. The collection concludes with Around the World, a folk-song…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: A Life in Song: Various arias (bass-baritone: Bruce Martin)

Bruce Martin is a black-voiced bass-baritone whose immense strength also possesses wonderful finesse. His repertoire encompasses classical and contemporary opera, though he became especially noted for his Wagnerian roles – no-one who saw his Australian Opera performance as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger will ever forget those performances. This two-disc compilation features studio and live recordings made here and in South Africa. Most come from the 1970s and ‘80s, though the longevity of his voice is attested by a fine recording of the Mussorgsky Songs and Dances of Death from 1999. The repertoire here is huge, ranging from Mozart to Schubert, Verdi to Wagner, and to the further American shores of Lerner and Loewe’s ‘They Call the Wind Maria’, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and even the Paul Anka rewriting of Jacques Revaux’s ‘My Way’. This is overdue recognition of a special and often difficult career, which seemed crammed with triumphs and disappointments. Long-time Australian Opera friend and patron Martin Dickson is right when he points to Martin’s fastidious attention to musical detail. What he doesn’t mention is how, despite the study, there seems an almost insolent ease in the way he throws out a well-nigh perfect version…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BERLIOZ L’enfance du Christ; Romeo & Juliet (Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Cluytens; Choeurs René Duclos; de los Angeles; Gedda Chicago Symphony/Giulini)

Warm, intimate, gentle and yet absorbing, it belies Berlioz’s reputation for overstatement and is known chiefly for the ‘Shepherds’ Farewell’. This recording, almost half a century old, is just perfect with its all-French cast, except obviously for de los Angeles (in radiant voice anyway), and the then standard French-sounding orchestra with its slightly tart woodwind adding the last touch of Gallic authenticity, overlaid with the master touch of Cluytens. The characters in this tableau vivant are much more three-dimensional than those in most oratorios and genuinely interact to create a genuine snapshot of life at the time of Christ’s birth. The Romeo and Juliet excerpts are another story. It’s one of a handful of recordings made by Giulini in the mid-1970s for EMI in Chicago when he seemed a civilising influence able to tame this orchestral beast after the occasional brutality of Decca’s Solti. Giulini brings insights into the extended slow pieces such as ‘Romeo Alone’ and maintains the note-to-note tension without any micro-managing, while the faster, more extrovert numbers radiate a visceral brashness amid the wonderful virtuosity quite appropriately. The Queen Mab scherzo is a model of truly knife-edge ensemble. 

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2; Valses Nobles et Sentimentales; La Valse; Ma Mère L’Oye – Suite (Rotterdam PO/Nézet-Séguin)

Of the abridged versions of the full work, the second of the two Daphnis and Chloé suites is the most popular. The music rises mellifluously with the sun and eventually climaxes in its famous 5/4 beat bacchanal. French-Canadian conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, is quite at home here, coaxing lush and exciting playing from Holland’s second orchestra. The great, arching violin melody in the opening pages of the score has rarely sounded so serenely grand. Ravel’s tribute to the more dissolute side of the waltz is on show in Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and La Valse. We easily forget that when the waltz was new, it was regarded as a decadent development. In La Valse, Ravel has made sure we don’t forget it. The work almost deconstructs the waltz. For me the finest piece on the disc is in the Mother Goose Suite. A ballet score touching on the remembrances of childhood. If ever there was music written to lift one’s spirits skyward, this is it. The progress from the hushed and softly imagined Pavane, the joyous brilliance of ‘Petit Poucet’ and finally the radiant apotheosis of ‘The Magic Garden’, is almost without peer in this style of imaginary composition. Although the…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TCHAIKOVSKY Variations on a rococo theme PROKOFIEV Sinfonia concertante cello: (Gautier Capuçon; Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre/Gergiev)

It’s unlikely that even with the powerful and eloquent advocacy of Gautier Capuçon (who claims to have loved the work since he was a child – some people must have strange childhoods) Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante will ever supplant either the Dvorák or Elgar concertos in the concert hall. This is a pity as the work certainly deserves more acknowledgement than it has ever received. Sure, it has the skittish wit, brittle elegance and lyrical warmth of the composer at his best but I’m tempted to think he just poured too much material into it. Composed for Rostropovich, it first appeared as the composer’s ‘Cello Concerto No 2’ in 1952 but was then renamed with its current title. The Concertante is misleading, as the cello’s part is as demanding as that in any conventional concerto, with what the excellent sleeve noted refers to as “bitingly confrontational exchanges with the orchestra”. For me, the most bizarre section occurred in the last movement where we hear parodies of Mahler, Rossini and Britten. Gautier’s performance is a tour de force. His exquisitely nuanced Rococo Variations take this work to a new level with the Third Variation assuming a gorgeous balletic quality. 

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