May 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: A new breed of CD Player: group review

The Cyrus CD6 SE CD player had been our favourite for some time, until last year that is, when the brilliant Audiolab 8200CD blew us away. That doesn’t make this group test a foregone conclusion, though, oh no. Not only does it represent a fierce struggle for the Cyrus to regain its belt, it also introduces two new challengers that hope to throw a spanner in the works. Ok, so “new” might not quite be the best phrase with which to describe the Roksan Kandy K2, which looks identical to its’ previous CDS model, but underneath the hood it’s undergone some quite hefty revisions, and as the previous model received a solid four stars, the portents look good. The Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite also looks very promising. Essentially a smaller, more affordable version of the full-size Pearl that was released last year, it represents both the most forward-thinking player here, and also the only one with SACD support. Weathering the digital-music storm CD players have essentially changed very little over the years, so “forward-thinking” might seem an odd phrase to use, but we are suddenly starting to see progress, and ironically it’s thanks to the very thing that’s often perceived…

May 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: FREDDY KEMPF: Rachmaninov, Busoni, Ravel, Stravinsky

This is technically demanding repertoire. Not many pianists would even attempt it. Yet, here is a 33-year-old whose technique is so formidable that none of his decisions are dictated by the level of difficulty. Artists of this calibre should be treasured. How knowingly he captures the melancholic nostalgia below the surface of Rachmaninov’s late masterpiece Variations on a Theme of Corelli. This is Rachmaninov with nothing more to prove, no further need to impress an increasingly fickle public, making music out of a private compulsion to create. Kempf displays the requisite range of power and inward-looking tenderness to match Rachmaninov’s vision. Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the chaconne from Bach’s second Violin Partita follows in the same key with a satisfying inevitability. Here Kempf rises to the challenge set by Busoni to recreate the sound of a vast church organ with all stops out. In Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and Stravinsky’s Three movements from Petrushka, Kempf makes a deliberate choice to move away from the music’s origins in dance. Employing plenty of rubato, he treats the Stravinsky as a free fantasia, wallowing in its pianistic textures (unlike the sharp, brittle excitement of the recent, marvellous recording by Yuja Wang). Likewise,…

May 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Pianomania (featuring Lang Lang, Pierre Laurent-Aimard)

This documentary could just as easily have been called “monomania”. It is a character study of obsessive Steinway technician Stefan Knüpfer, a virtuoso among piano tuners. He prepares the instruments for the actual virtuosi, responding with inexhaustible patience to their often nebulous requests. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, for instance, wants a piano with two contrasting soundworlds for a recording of The Art of Fugue – an effect Knüpfer attempts to realise, in a rather Chaplinesque episode, with the help of removable sound absorbers and glass sound mirrors.  Knüpfer’s mishaps continue when Lang Lang announces that the piano tuned especially for his solo concert is better suited for chamber music. Comedy duo Igudesman & Joo draw a welcome spark of levity from the technician, whose implacable earnestness does grow a bit dull at times. In fact, the film’s only shocking moment is when we learn Knüpfer has a family. What? A life away from Steinway?  Knüpfer is not the most charismatic linchpin for a documentary, but by god, he’s definitely the man you’d want tuning your piano. And that’s what this documentary is really about – the quest for the perfect piano sound, and the men who devote their lives to it. A…

May 17, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Live in Beijing (Yundi Li)

Yundi – he left the ‘Li’ behind on his move to EMI – is the “other” Chinese classical pianist. A rival to Lang Lang, Yundi has a less hysterical fan base (although it is similarly vast) and a more sophisticated European sheen to his sound. Chopin is Yundi’s composer of choice, and this CD is devoted to a live all-Chopin concert given in Beijing in May of last year. The bonus DVD contains the complete concert, plus two extra nocturnes. There is no gainsaying the poise and evenness of Yundi’s technique. One example may be found in the fast scale passages towards the close of the Grande Polonaise Brilliante Op 22: they are beautifully clear. The pianist throws himself with gusto into the tumultuous first movement of the Sonata in B-flat minor, bringing light and shade to his attack so the rapid repeated chords never descend into a bang-fest. The real test of this…This article is available to Limelight subscribers. Log in to continue reading. Access our paywalled content and archive of magazines, regular news and features for the limited offer of $3 per month. Subscribe now

May 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RAVEL: Complete Piano Music (piano: Steven Osborne)

What comes across most vividly in the Scottish pianist’s recordings, particularly in Impressionist repertoire, is a deep and joyous engagement with the sonorities of his instrument. Here he offers up some of the most fluid and vibrant Ravel I’ve ever heard, superior to Louis Lortie’s and to the earlier Hyperion survey by Angela Hewitt. Gaspard de la nuit is the true test of technique for any Ravelian. While Osborne doesn’t quite attain the mirage-like perfection of Martha Argerich’s reading, his Gaspard is impeccably played, bringing darkness and mystery to the fore. Le tombeau de Couperin is faster and livelier than that of Anne Queffélec (whose interpretation he acknowledges as an influence) but loses none of the delicate refinement or lilting dance character. As for the other famous works on the disc: in Pavane for a dead princess, Osborne shows just the right amount of restraint and eschews the tendency – much lamented by Ravel – to play too slowly in the manner of a dirge. The solo piano version of La Valse was intended as a rehearsal score for the work famously rejected by Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. As the pianist explains in his thoughtful liner note, it is not always included in Ravel piano collections but Osborne himself fleshed out…

May 10, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TCHAIKOVSKY, HIGDON Violin Concertos (violin: Hilary Hahn; Royal Liverpool PO/Petrenko)

Athough not yet 40, American composer Jennifer Higdon started late on a musical career but is now in hot demand. This 2008 violin concerto, written for and dedicated to her ex-student Hilary Hahn, won Higdon the Pulitzer Prize. The committee called it a “deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity.”  High harmonics from the soloist introduce the playful first movement, followed by a lyrical and tonal slow movement that rises to a bracing climax before subsiding. The finale gives Hahn plenty of fireworks to play with. It resembles the final movement of Barber’s concerto. She is equally brilliant here, her clean, clear tone perfectly centred throughout. Her fast passagework is immaculate and, beyond technical matters, she brings every phrase to life. On disc Hahn has always coupled a lesser-known concerto with a concert favourite (Bernstein/Beethoven, Schönberg/Sibelius) and does so again here. She is light and lean in the Tchaikovsky, matched all the way by Petrenko’s detailed accompaniment. The effect is like cleaning a century of grime off an old painting. Even if you have several Tchaikovskys on your shelf, this is worth adding.

May 10, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos 4 & 5 (New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Inkinen)

Sibelius’s Fourth is, for me, the most enigmatic symphony ever written. Both the second movement scherzo and finale trail off elliptically. Inkinen and his New Zealanders capture the intense bleakness of the first movement (described by one commentator as “groping in utter darkness in order to avoid the abyss, aided only by the occasional shaft of weak sunlight”). In the slow movement, the temperature drops to absolute zero – the subatomic particles simply stop vibrating – and here, these forces are up with the best. In the finale, perhaps the strangest movement of all, Inkinen cleaves to the glockenspiel (instead of chimes), whose silvery sonority is, on the face of it, the most incongruous instrument Sibelius could have chosen: it can sometimes remind you of The Nutcracker, or even worse, Der Rosenkavalier. Not here, thank heavens! I’m not quite as taken with the Fifth, although it has many fine features. Inkinen handles the gear change between the two halves of the first movement convincingly, but I think he baulks slightly at the great climaxes. In the coda at the end of the first movement, the brass doesn’t ring with quite the stentorian force that it does in Berlin (Karajan) or Philadelphia (Ormandy)….

May 10, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: THE VIRTUOSO CLARINET (clarinet: Michael Collins; piano: Piers Lane)

This is virtuosity with no excuses. English clarinetist Michael Collins, abetted by Australian pianist Piers Lane, shows just how supple and exhilarating the clarinet can be, in a recital of works drawn from three centuries. The centrepiece is the great Grand Duo Concertant, Op 48, by Carl Maria von Weber. As the title suggests, this is very much a display piece for both instruments, with Lane happily sharing the limelight. Excitement is at the forefront, and the third and final movement is positively charged with drama, before it heads into a deceptive series of finales. The other major work is the premiere recording of a new piece composed in 2009 by clarinetist Simon Milton – his Carmen Fantasy Op 22, which carries with it almost as much bravura excitement as the most famous Carmen paraphrase, by Sarasate for violin. But all the other works, by Gershwin, Rachmaninov, Donato Lovreglio, Milhaud, Messager and Alamiro Giampieri, have their own felicities. Chandos has excelled itself with an up-front recording acoustic which suits the virtuosic nature of the recital. We hear both clarinettist and pianist centre stage as if we are in the choicest of recital hall seats. The clarinet is not my favourite instrument…

May 10, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUBERT: Lieder Vol 5 “Night and Dreams” (baritone: Matthias Goerne, piano: Alexander Schmalcz)

Franz Schubert left behind some 600 songs when he died in 1828. He was aged just 31 and his end came after the agony of tertiary syphilis – a cruel end for someone who created such beauty. This collection by Matthias Goerne is centred, as the title suggests, on songs of night and dreams, with lashings of melancholy, old age and presages of death. Goerne’s black voice is a perfect vehicle for such dark musings. His is a voice which seems to be moving from baritonal to bass, and in some instances – particularly the thunderous Totengräbers Heimweh (“Gravedigger’s Pining for Home”) his timbre assumes a positively Wagnerian strength. This is a fascinating compilation of Schubert in his darkest moods. As an antidote to its gloomy moments, I would recommend listening also to Goerne’s recording of Die schöne Müllerin, which has its share of grief too, but which also contains carefree beauty missing from this anthology. Don’t misunderstand me: this is a fine collection. But if the listener is starting out on a journey of Schubertian exploration, there are more varied shores to explore than these. Pianist Alexander Schmalcz accompanies satisfactorily, though the keenest sense of artistic collaboration is not fully evident on this disc. The recording acoustic is close, accentuating breathing,…

May 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MAHLER: The Song of the Earth (Stuart Skelton, t; Lilli Paasikivi, m; Sydney SO/Ashkenazy)

Just as I’d begun to wonder if Ashkenazy has anything interesting to say about Mahler, this perfomance completely restored my confidence. It’s long been almost a truism to opine that no one will ever dislodge the Klemperer/Ludwig/Wunderlich recording, but this one yields to no one in its beauty and honesty. Both soloists are excellent. Stuart Skelton negotiates the orchestral tuttis of the first song (The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow) like a true heldentenor, seething with bitterness and contempt while never being swamped by the huge climaxes nor resorting to bluster or rant. In the second song, The Lonely One in Autumn, Lilli Paasikivi is perfect, conveying the sense of unhappy solitude while the orchestral accompaniment conveys a real autumnal chill. In Of Beauty her articulation and breath control during the manic so-called ‘horseback’ interlude are miraculous. In the wrong hands this passage can resemble Ethel Merman belting out Everything’s Coming up Roses, as one critic wittily observed. In Der Abschied, her repetitions of the word ewig “forever” make her voice sound like an extension of the orchestra. The legendary producer Walter Legge, who supervised some of the Klemperer recording of this work, once said that in creating great recordings one…

May 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH: The Art of Fugue (Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin)

The Art of Fugue is one of Bach’s most misunderstood works. As if all the other great Passions, Masses, instrumental suites, concertos and so on were not enough, Bach apparently set out in this work to demonstrate just what could be done with one of music’s great intellectual achievements, the fugue. There is the myth that he died while in the act of the composition of its last section: in fact he all but finished it some four years before his death, but always meant to go back to it. There is also the widely held misconception that it is a dry, academic work. It might be conceded that, if it is heard via one instrument only, or even by an unvarying ensemble of strings (say), then it might be somewhat challenging to follow its extraordinary complexity. If you feel any of those things, then this recording is for you. The outstanding Academy for Early Music Berlin offers a riveting journey through this wondrous music, using all the textures at its disposal. For example, the famous Contrapunctus 1 is delivered by a string quartet. It’s followed by a solo harpsichord, then two oboes, bassoon and trombone, then the whole orchestra,…

May 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN: Complete Piano Concertos (piano: François-Frédéric Guy, Radio France PO/Jordan)

Looking for a new set of these remarkable works? A quick glance reveals there are over 30 sets of the Piano Concertos on the market at the moment, ranging from the historical (Schnabel and Kempff) to more contemporary recordings (Ashkenazy, Perahia, Brendel, Kissin and Barenboim). This new set from France is another take on these warhorses. Philippe Jordan states that he places the works at the core of his repertoire. They are well played and accompanied and there are no surprises. Simply good, sensitive Beethoven playing. Nor are these recordings overly reverberant, which is a blessing.The final movement of the Fifth is given a more lyrical treatment than usual. Quite often this section can turn into a piano bashing exercise, but Jordan treats it with welcome humour. The up-tempo section in the last movement of the First Concerto still makes one sit up. It is a delight, with its “cool” swing. I ran some comparisons with some benchmark EMI recordings from the 1950s. I expected to find the recordings with Emil Gilels stodgy, dragged down by pre-original instrument heavy-handedness. This is was not the case as they are fabulous performances. Gilels plays with far more character than Guy.However, it is an…

May 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOSTLY MOZART (soprano: Mojca Erdmann; La Cetra Barockorchester Basel/Marcon)

Mojca Erdmann is a young soprano from Hamburg, best known for her role in Simon Rattle’s Berlin recording of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges and as the soloist in Jonathan Nott’s performance of Mahler Four. In this, her first solo album, she seems perfectly matched to the Classical-period repertoire. Her smallish voice is flexible and pure-toned and she makes good use of vibrato for dramatic purposes, singing with great control, considerable beauty and an obvious awareness of character and dramatic context.  The program consists mostly of Mozart’s lighter roles. She is a pert Zerlina, but less characterful as Susanna. Even so, she manages the legato winningly in Susanna’s aria Deh vieni, non tardar. She throws herself with gusto into Tiger! Wetze nur die Klauen from Zaide, capping the aria with a ringing top D, yet draws out the line of Pamina’s aria from The Magic Flute at a slow tempo to produce a poised and heartfelt interpretation. Erdmann also sings two excerpts from Günter von Schwarzburg by Ignaz Holzbauer, an opera Mozart himself enjoyed, as well as arias by JC Bach, Paisiello and Salieri. Marcon and his “historically informed” band La Cetra play beautifully, another plus for this highly enjoyable…