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…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN Piano Sonatas 1-3; Scherzos 1-4; 4 Ballades; Fantasie Op 49; Barcarolle, Op 60 (piano: Adam Harasiewicz)

People also expected Chopin to be interpreted that way, with tons of rubato and an emphasis on lyricism over structure.When the Polish pianist Adam Harasiewicz appeared on the scene in the 1950s, he was ahead of his time in his approach to Chopin. He simply played the music straight, revealing the importance of structure in the composer’s work and bringing out a Classical influence. Harasiewicz recorded all the composer’s works for Philips but remained a cult figure and is largely forgotten today. Despite that, he paved the way for such modern masters as Murray Perahia, who no longer feels the need to pull Chopin’s music around. In Harasiewicz’s hands, the First Piano Sonata sounds Mozartian in its clarity; the Funeral March from the Second Sonata grieves with an aristocratic dignity and no hint of hysteria. He executes the fast scales and arpeggios of the Scherzos accurately without drawing attention to his technique. It is only in the inward-looking moments of the Ballades and the tender Barcarolle that his dry-eyed, straightforward style fails to pay dividends. Nevertheless, this is an interesting reissue, with sound quality that belies the age of the recordings.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Rubenstein Piano Music 1852-1894 (Joseph Banowetz)

The pleasant salon music drifted around me and I fancied I dozed off. When I stirred moments later, I was aware of an accomplished pianist seated at a grand piano near the picture window of a tastefully furnished room. I saw Schumann wander in from the garden. He nodded to me agreeably and disappeared, probably in search of Clara. Then I fancied Mendelssohn could be seen sitting in a far corner of the room looking slightly pained as he listened. Tchaikovsky came in briefly and enquired if I’d seen Rubinstein anywhere. I replied that I’d glimpsed him earlier arguing with Sinding; or at least I thought I had. He listened to the music for a few minutes, then shaking his head sympathetically, said that he too had had trouble writing solo piano music of any significance. He then muttered something about meeting a young guardsman in the summerhouse and ducked out. I slipped back into reverie as one of the more agreeable works, the first of the two charming Melodies wafted across the room. The waiter confided to me that they were planning first recordings of much of what we were hearing. I nodded, impressed by the largesse of some…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MESSIAEN Poèmes pour Mi (soprano: Anne Schwanewilms; Orchestre National de Lyon/Jun Märkl)

It was originally composed for piano and soprano; this is the version for orchestra first performed a dozen years later. It’s sung here by Anne Schwanewilms, known as an interpreter of Strauss and Wagner. She is obviously a dab hand at more intimate lieder, as these songs – very personal love songs from Messiaen to his wife, mixed with the religious motifs which formed such an idiosyncratic core in his work – are sung with great delicacy and sensitivity. The religious motifs are heard even more strongly in the second offering on this disc, Les Offrandes Oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings) from 1930, Messiaen’s first published orchestral work. This still sounds contemporary in its harvesting of impressionistic dissonances and untamed musical emotions. On this evidence, Messiaen’s personal view of his religion bore heavily on pain and sacrifice and there is a great deal of very quiet solitary introspection too amidst the fury.The final work is a concentrated (9 min) offering to the memory of Mozart, which was commissioned for a premiere performance in 1991, the bicentenary of Mozart’s death. Beautiful mystical passages alternate with barbed sections based on birdsong. Although Messiaen said this piece was meant to evoke the happiness of…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: STRAUSS Four Last Songs; Morgen!; Zueignung; Der Rosenkavalier (singers: Kenny, Gore, Harms, Hibbard; Queensland SO/Fritzsch)

Here they are coupled with three excerpts from the opera, including the ecstatic Act Three trio, and two of Strauss’s most languorous solo songs. At 44:36 this makes for a short CD. The disc is a showcase for soprano Yvonne Kenny. Her voice has been described as “silvery”; that, plus her accuracy of pitch and sure dramatic instincts, ensures her success in Handel and Mozart. Her Marschallin from Der Rosenkavalier has also been acclaimed, and you can hear why in the Act One monologue recorded here. Her pointing of detail and sympathetic intelligence bring the character of the ageing beauty vividly to life. At this stage of Kenny’s career she is still able to project her middle register, but I feel that these pieces respond more fully to a larger voice. Despite her positive attributes, something is missing: compare the recordings by Gundula Janowitz, Jessye Norman or Soile Isokoski. Fritszch and the Queensland Orchestra give solid support, though the recording rather crowds them around the soloist. Harms’s robust Octavian and Gore’s slightly mature sounding Sophie are fine – but it’s Kenny’s show. If you’re a fan you won’t be disappointed.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: GLUCK Orphée et Eurydice (singers: Flórez, Garmendia, Marianelli; Coro y Orquesta del Teatro Real Madrid/López-Cobos)

Renowned for his virtuosity in bel canto roles, the Peruvian tenor has chosen to focus almost exclusively on that repertoire and this recording marks a rare foray into the world beyond Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. The focus, accuracy and supple legato which characterise Flórez’s bel canto efforts are undimmed, but it’s also clear that he’s not in his element. Removed from their usual florid surroundings into the cleaner lines of Gluck’s early classicism, Flórez’s bright, slightly nasal timbre and Italianate delivery start to jar: it’s a beautifully sung performance, but never a fully idiomatic one. Ainhoa Garmendia as Eurydice is more persuasive, her impassioned sweetness of tone disturbed only by some tightness at the top of the tessitura, while Alessandra Marianelli is a clear-voiced, if somewhat generic Amour. It is the Teatro Real chorus, however, who provide arguably the loveliest vocal contribution of all, with richly coloured ensemble singing. Jesus López-Cobos conducts with a firm if rather rigid hand, drawing glossy, well-articulated performances from orchestra and soloists, but not much drama – this shortcoming may also have something to do with the concert setting. A success, then – laudable for helping Gluck’s landmark opera back into the mainstream, and for…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MAHLER Symphony No 1; Blumine; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (baritone: Markus Eiche; SSO/Ashkenazy)

Mahler’s First was one of them. I vividly recall the normally somnolent Thursday afternoon audience rising to its feet to cheer after his 2002 performance. Sadly, neither that, nor the 2008 reprise, has ever been issued. I think his reading had both more Innigkeit and sheer élan than this reading by Ashkenazy, who I doubt has anything particularly interesting to say in this work. The opening string shimmer lacks mystery and expectancy. Is this, perhaps, because he’s a pianist, not a violinist and can’t convey the importance of a sustained string tremolo? The Wayfarer theme goes well enough but, overall, there is little sense of verdant nature awakening to a new day. The Scherzo needs more of what Germans call Schwung (“oomph”), and the trio should resemble an inebriated swoon, which doesn’t quite happen here. In the klezmer-meets-Kurt Weill third movement, again, the music is played a little too straight. The final sprawling movement is always a challenge and Ashkenazy and co. don’t sweep the field here either. Even the famous molto expressivo string passage sounds slightly perfunctory in their hands. Leonard Bernstein is, as usual in Mahler, wonderful in both his recordings, but my favourite performance is Guilini’s in…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 3, 5 (piano: Alexander Gavrylyuk, SSO/Vladimir Ashkenazy)

Vladimir Ashkenazy is well known for his fascination with the earthier side of Russian orchestral music. His orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition is far more liturgical than Ravel’s, and so it is to be expected he would take a similar view with Prokofiev. Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk follows Ashkenazy’s lead here: his interpretations and playing are remarkable, with many original touches and a dazzling technique. Ashkenazy as conductor understands what is required in this music and is a superb collaborator. The results are terrific. Like Beethoven, Prokofiev is able to alternate between the male and female moods in his music, setting beautifully dreamy themes against hard brutality. This is what makes the music so attractive and gives it life. The first is the simplest of the five works and easiest to bring off, provided you keep at it. And in this performance they do. This short piece won the composer his spurs in the 1914 Rubinstein Competition. It was a triumph and Glazunov begrudgingly awarded him first prize. Both it and the third concerto leap at you, embracing, irresistible. The third is generally regarded the greatest of the five and it is the most popular, being more comprehensible at first…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN Mazurkas, Polonaise-Fantaisie, Scherzo and Nocturne (piano: Cédric Tiberghien)

The awesome fecundity of Chopin and the sheer breadth of his invention often blinds us to the fact that in visual art terms, he was a water-colourist who eschewed the grander mediums of oil or sculpture. But with his chosen palette of the piano, he was grand enough – and delicate enough – for any purpose. In Chopin’s hands, the piano seems to have limitless scope for expression, from the most poised miniature waltz or mazurka to the most dramatic nocturne or scherzo. This recital from French pianist Cédric Tiberghien uses a clever selection of works to show the range of Chopin’s accomplishments. At its heart is a choice of some 13 of the approximately 50 mazurkas Chopin left us. Nestled within these polished miniatures are three more meaty works – the intensely dramatic Scherzo Op 20, the lyrical Nocturne Op 48, and the Polonaise-Fantaisie Op 61, of which Tiberghien writes: “If I were allowed to keep only one work by Chopin, it would be this… it’s the perfect expression of his personality”. This beautifully chosen recital has the benefit of extraordinarily clear acoustics. But the lilting yet powerful performances are enough to make the listener want to seek out…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Prokofiev: Piano Concertos 1, 2, 4 (piano: Alexander Gavrylyuk, SSO/Vladimir Ashkenazy)

Vladimir Ashkenazy is well known for his fascination with the earthier side of Russian orchestral music. His orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition is far more liturgical than Ravel’s, and so it is to be expected he would take a similar view with Prokofiev. Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk follows Ashkenazy’s lead here: his interpretations and playing are remarkable, with many original touches and a dazzling technique. Ashkenazy as conductor understands what is required in this music and is a superb collaborator. The results are terrific. Like Beethoven, Prokofiev is able to alternate between the male and female moods in his music, setting beautifully dreamy themes against hard brutality. This is what makes the music so attractive and gives it life. The first is the simplest of the five works and easiest to bring off, provided you keep at it. And in this performance they do. This short piece won the composer his spurs in the 1914 Rubinstein Competition. It was a triumph and Glazunov begrudgingly awarded him first prize. Both it and the third concerto leap at you, embracing, irresistible. The third is generally regarded the greatest of the five and it is the most popular, being more comprehensible at first…

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