June 7, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Deleted Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor (Caro Emerald)

Dutch singer Caro Emerald holds the record for the longest time at No 1 on the Netherlands pop charts. But Deleted Scenes has even more impressive things to recommend it. Emerald has taken the sound world of 1920s Chicago and given it a slick, studio sound of today. So you could use it to dance the Charleston, or the krump, or whatever it is the kids do nowadays. I can handle the electronic beats, but the synthesized horns really cheapen this recording. But all in all, a delightful bit of Eurotrash to titillate fans of Helen Kane, Fats Waller and maybe even Amy Winehouse.

June 7, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: David Hobson: The Best of David Hobson

This CD shows tenor David Hobson in his most appealing guise – as a purveyor of song. From pop (Roy Orbison’s Crying) to showtunes (The Impossible Dream from Man of La Mancha) to folk (O Waly Waly), Hobson is very comfortable in an idiom he describes in the liner notes as his “second home”. There is a natural ease to his voice and delivery that makes him compare very favourably to the likes of crossover crooners such as Clay Aiken and Russell Watson.

June 7, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Gate (Kurt Elling)

The Grammy-winning vocalist describes this album as “definitive” Kurt Elling. One thing’s for certain: his move to producer Don Was results in a more highly produced album, featuring layered backing vocals and other effects which, in a way, detract from Elling’s natural “wow factor”. Even more assured, however, with a maturing grainy crackle around the edges, are the highlights of The Gate – two songs only six years apart in birthdate, but poles apart in DNA – the Davis/Evans Blue in Green and the Lennon/McCartney Norwegian Wood. Laurence Hobgood remains a prized collaborator and foil.

June 7, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Home (Jane Monheit)

For those who have followed Jane Monheit’s career since she was a 20-year-old runner-up to Teri Thornton in the 1998 Thelonious Monk Institute vocal competition (Roberta Gambarini was third), this is the album we have been waiting for. At 33, eleven years after her recording debut, she has come of age as a jazz singer. This shows in her sense of dynamics and the confident way she tackles a lyric – with a voice like a shot of whiskey and honey. Her scat singing, especially, befits someone who cites Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Tormé among her early influences. There are many highlights: the spirited feistiness of Everything I Have is Yours with Mark O’Connor’s violin; plumbing the emotional depths in I’ll Be Around; and the romanticism of There’s a Small Hotel with lovely piano by Michael Kanan. They all show she’s the real deal.

June 7, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: D’INDY: Poeme des ravages; Symphonie italienne (Iceland SO/Gamba)

Vincent D’Indy wrote a bucketload of music in his productive lifetime, much of which is now forgotten. If one knows music by this composer then it is likely to be his tone poem, Ishtar, or the Symphony on a French Mountain Air, a quasi-piano concerto that is arguably the best thing he ever wrote. He was a mover and shaker in French music. A passionate Wagnerite, he attended the premiere of the Ring Cycle, and Wagner’s influence can be heard in his music. If a case can be made for D’Indy’s lushly attractive (if discursive) music, then Maestro Gamba can do it. His collaborator in this adventure is the Iceland Symphony: a fine ensemble that delivers all that the conductor asks of it, playing the music with sensitivity and a sense of grandeur that this minor French composer’s music requires. That he was a composition pupil of César Franck’s can be heard clearly at times. His pupils included Roussel, Satie and surprisingly, Cole Porter.The Poème is a languid work, good for a dreamy Sunday afternoon when you don’t much care if the agreeable music ever ends. The last section seems infinite, the musical material seeming to lack structure and short…

June 7, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ESENVALDS: Passion and Resurrection (Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Layton)

The Latvian struggle for independence from the Soviet Union has been dubbed the “Singing Revolution”, in which freedom fighters raised their voices in a chorus of forbidden songs. Australian concert-goers have sampled the mesmerising choral sound of the Baltic as championed by Stephen Layton in 2010. Now Layton and his British group Polyphony introduce the young Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds, whose a cappella and accompanied choral works are accessible for their heartfelt expressions of suffering and joy. His Passion draws on sacred texts in English and Latin, and the impossibly pure Polyphony tone wrings devastating emotional impact from every syllable. The warm plainchant opening is gradually submerged in glassy string dissonance from the Britten Sinfonia. Extreme changes of mood and atmosphere fade seamlessly into one another so that the climax’s stormy repetitions of “crucify!” lull themselves into the gentlest of prayers. Carolyn Sampson’s haunting, at times visceral soprano solos place Passion and Resurrection alongside other contemporary classics like Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The works on the album pay tribute to womankind, from soaring soprano lines to texts by American women poets and Mother Teresa, as well as depictions of Mary Magdalene and the stabat mater. The Sara Teasdale setting…

June 7, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: THE LONDON HARP SOUND (Geoffrey Simon)

Geoffrey Simon’s London Sound series started many years ago with the first London Cello Sound. This unlikely idea (since adopted by many others) simply took one instrument, multiplied it by 8, 12 or 16, and produced an orchestra of instrumental siblings. We’ve had three or four cello discs, as well as discs of nothing but trumpets, horns, violas (there’s revenge for you), violins, basses and now harps – at least eleven discs so far. In this latest offering there are no fewer than 16 of these magnificent instruments – each one an orchestra in its own right – playing really clever arrangements of everything from Edith Piaf (and no they don’t regret it) to music originally written for the instrument. Of course this stuff must be played at the highest level to work, and so it is. The players are some of the world’s finest, from Skaila Kanga, Professor Emerita of Harp at the Royal Academy of Music and Principal Harp of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, to Virginie Gout-Zschäbitz, solo harp at Deutsche Oper Berlin, who also moonlights with the Berlin Philharmonic. You get the idea. My favourite piece from this very unusual smorgasbord is an…

June 7, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART: String Quartets K157, K458, K589 (Jerusalem Quartet)

These are invigorating accounts of three Mozart string quartets that neatly encapsulate the history of his writing for this musical medium. Mozart’s string quartets fall into three major brackets of works spread over 17 or 18 years, each represented here. The first quartet K157 in C major dates from 1772, when Mozart was just 17 years old. The quartet form was undergoing rapid development at this stage and Mozart, fresh from his musical explorations across Europe, was brimming with ideas. His youthful zest is already tempered by deep reflection, as shown in the astonishing depth of the Allegro which makes up the first movement. His prodigious development as a musician is reflected in the clutch of works known as the “Haydn” quartets. Here is Mozart in 1784, not quite 30 but already in his full maturity as a composer. The performance here of the Hunt quartet (K458) shows why this bracket of quartets is regarded as the finest he ever wrote. Mozart evidently thought he had pretty well exhausted his explorations of the genre, for although he was later commissioned to write a further set, he never completed the proposed cycle. Here from that final series is one of his…

May 31, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MILLS: Pages from a Secret Journal (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Mills)

Lavish collections of Australian composers’ orchestral work are sadly all too rare, making this is a disc to be treasured. It contains four substantial works by Richard Mills written over a two-decade period, beginning with 1989’s Bamaga Diptych and progressing chronologically to 2008’s Symphony of Nocturnes. Richard Mills has long enjoyed a multifaceted career; he first rose through the ranks of the orchestra as a percussionist before making a name as a composer and conductor. His commitment to Australian music has been profound, cemented recently by his exhaustive 20-disc Australian Composers Series leading the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, so the dedicated focus here on his own music is well deserved. The works here are classic Mills: sweeping and confident, full of malleable shapes and exotic turns of phrase. His renowned magic as an orchestrator is abundant here, with bold colours reminiscent of Ravel and Stravinsky shining through each score. To my ears there is little precedent or parallel for this kind of music here in Australia, although perhaps the lush romanticism of Richard Meale and the energetic optimism of Carl Vine come close. As always with Mills there are strong elements of fantasy and imagination at play, with nods towards the…

May 31, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BARTOK: The Miraculous Mandarin Suite; BRAHMS: Symphony No 1 (LSO/Pasternack)

This is an odd coupling. The notes don’t help explain the collation of these disparate works except for the conductor’s rather vaguely argued affection for both pieces. Brahms comes out of it best as Pasternack gives the great work due weight, although the performance loses energy in the development section of the first movement. Bartók is a different matter. The Miraculous Mandarin was the final stage work of one of the key composers of the 20th century. It is set in a brothel, where thugs use an attractive young girl to draw men in to murder and rob them. The music is remarkable and the composer uses all his skills in conjuring up the lurid world described. Feverish strings rush us forward into the score, and the composer’s trademarks of sliding trombones and exotic percussion are employed to great effect. However, the piece had a rocky start. The controversial ballet so horrified the original audience in Cologne in 1926 that it was withdrawn after one performance, after which it was suppressed due to censorship for many years. There are many recordings of the piece. Bartók’s countryman Antal Doráti’s tough and muscular approach can be heard on a fine old Mercury CD…

May 24, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VIRTUOSO: Music by Tartini, JS Bach, Wieniawski, Franck (violin: Ray Chen; piano: Noreen Polera)

It’s heartening to see major labels still signing largely unknown talent. In a well-planned and intelligent program to showcase his eclectic virtuosity, Chen raises the curtain with Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata, music which supposedly came to the composer in a dream in which it was played by the devil. The work begins with sweet simplicity and becomes more fearsomely difficult as it progresses. By the end, Chen’s virtuosity is like shards of light refracted through a brilliant prism. The first major work is the famous chaconne from JS Bach’s D minor Partita. For all its structural formality, this sublime movement harbours as wide an array of emotions as any Romantic violin piece, ranging from joy to solemnity and grief. Chen maintains the shape in one great arc but also remembers that a chaconne is still a dance, even in Bach’s hands. The other masterpiece is the César Franck sonata, perhaps the greatest Romantic violin sonata of all, composed by the 64-year-old Franck, an eminent organist who, it’s thought, would have been unable to play the violin. Here, Chen’s youthful ardour is to the fore. I’ve always found this work, especially the first movement, a wonderful amalgam of poetry and drama,…

May 24, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: S’IL VOUS PLAIT: Music for Accordion (Mie Miki)

For those who think classical music can’t be realised on accordion with any depth or subtlety, and who couldn’t acclimatise to Richard Galliano’s accordionised Bach, this disc could be the sweetest and most eclectic means of conversion. Japanese piano accordionist Mie Miki is one of the instrument’s most gifted exponents. I doubt anyone listening to her new album of 23 virtuoso miniatures and arrangements could fail to smile at the program’s delightful eccentricities or gasp at the sheer technical mastery on display. As the title suggests, S’il vous plaît is most persuasive in French repertoire. Rigadoons by Rameau showcase Miki’s feeling for lively yet elegant Baroque ornamentation; she manages to squeeze real pathos out of Legrand’s theme from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and André Astier’s Miss Karting seduces with Gallic musette charm. Dance forms are the order of the day in this recital replete with waltzes (Shostakovich and Philip Glass), polkas (Rossi) and tangos (Stravinsky and the gutsy title track by Piazzolla, patron saint of accordionists). Zez Confrey’s novelty piano classic Dizzy Fingers is an inspired inclusion: one really can picture Miki’s fingers leaping and prancing over the keys and buttons. Then there’s Handel, Brahms, Schubert and Scarlatti for good measure….

May 24, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH: Cantatas and Arias for soprano (Elizabeth Watts; The English Concert/Bicket)

Elizabeth Watts caught international attention when she won the Song Prize at the 2007 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, and her star has risen steadily since, particularly in art song and 18th-century repertoire. This release – her second solo disc – is a testament to her talent in both of these specialties, bringing a lieder singer’s sensibility to a selection of Bach’s most beautiful and best-loved vocal music. Watts’s warm, focused soprano has an unforced beauty to it, particularly in its luscious middle register. Her diction is excellent, her phrasing graceful, and she demonstrates scrupulous attention to the text – assets honed in recital and which also make her an elegant Bach singer. That said, it’s not until the second half of this disc that she really shines, the joy and serenity of Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! and the similarly jubilant aria Ich bin vergnügt showing her at her passionate best. Her coloratura, if not always seamless, is vividly executed, and there’s a genuine smile in the voice. In lachrymose repertoire such as Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut and Ich wünschte mir den Tod Watts is less persuasive. She sings sweetly, but her interpretations are hampered by a…