1 August, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Oboe Concerto, Quartet, Sonata (Ogrintchouk)

Those lucky enough to see and hear the Royal Concertgebouw in Sydney at the end of this year should pay particular attention when the oboe sounds the A for the big tune-up. The man producing that note will be Alexei Ogrintchouk. It might be his only solo moment for the evening, but make no mistake: this is no ordinary oboist. The 27-year-old Russian virtuoso has been steadily building an outstanding reputation as one of the leading exponents of the instrument over the past eight years with a notable series of concerts and recordings, the latest of which is this exuberant triptych of works by Mozart at his most irresistible. The centerpiece, of course, is the concerto Mozart dedicated to his friend Friedrich Ramm, oboist with the leading orchestra of his day in Mannheim, but equally delightful is the charming and engaging quartet the composer wrote for Ramm later on. Ogrintchouk is joined by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra in this recording on the prestige Swedish label BIS. It’s a work where Mozart is bursting with ideas – especially in the final movement where you can almost sense the composer’s excitement about his new creation. Ogrintchouk’s technique and phrasing is matchless throughout…

1 August, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 1-4, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Lisitsa)

Valentina Lisitsa virtually invented herself through social media and is supposedly the most viewed pianist on YouTube. If this is supposed to imbue her with cachet, I’m afraid it’s lost on me. The liner notes in this set read more like a media release, giving us chapter and verse about her doubts and tribulations (as if these were somehow unique to her) and adopt an unduly reverential tone, hardly worthy of a label like Decca. Since she and her husband (with whom she initially attempted a duo pianist career before abandoning it for a solo career) sank their life savings into this project and allegedly paid for the LSO, conductor and venue themselves, one can only wish them luck. One review has described this undertaking as the latter-day equivalent of vanity publishing. Lisitsa mentions that there was no rehearsal and she hadn’t met the conductor before the recording sessions. It shows in the playing – competent, the least one would expect from the LSO, but hardly incandescent. The First and Fourth concertos have never really interested me very much. The Fourth seems to try (unsuccessfully) to incorporate jazz and the slow movement has the misfortune to bear a resemblance to…

1 August, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel, Vivaldi: Dixit Dominus (La Nuova Musica)

Most Baroque composers tried their hand at setting Psalm 109, including the two masters of vocal music: Handel and Vivaldi. This release couples Handel’s only Dixit Dominus with the last of Vivaldi’s three settings, which until 2005 had been mistakenly attributed to Galuppi. Between them, as a sort of solo soprano palate cleanser, is one of Vivaldi’s spectacular motets, In furore iustissimae irae. His Dixit Dominus, by contrast, is a fairly restrained setting, gently complementing the declamatory drama and whirling strings of its Handelian counterpart. Under the direction of David Bates, La Nuova Musica – a relatively new ensemble on the early music scene – renders these works with vitality and precision. Vivaldi’s Dixit Dominus is delivered with disarming simplicity, Handel’s with crisp Latin diction and bright, bracing strings. Soprano Lucy Crowe ascends the florid heights of the Vivaldi motet with silvery voice and hair-raising fearlessness and there are outstanding solos from members of the choir: Helen- Jane Howells is ravishing in the Vivaldi – her “Virgam virtutis tuae” is a pearly delight – while countertenor Christopher Lowrey sings with focused beauty. With such depth of talent in the ensemble, it’s little wonder that they’ve produced such a satisfying addition…

1 August, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Weber: Der Freischütz (LSO)

Revered British conductor Sir Colin Davis passed away a few months ago, yet reviewing his last recording still comes a something of a shock. Listening to this live concert performance of Weber’s ghostly masterpiece is a welcome reminder of the virtues that kept this tireless musical advocate at the top of his game for 50 years. Carl Maria von Weber was a regular visitor in the Wagner household while the young Richard was growing up, and nowhere was his influence more clearly felt on the operatic giant- to-be than in his gothic fairytale, Der Freischütz. Davis homes in on that Wagnerian dimension, and if his Weber is a relatively sedate affair next to his blistering Berlioz, it benefits from his other great strengths – instinctive sense of orchestral balance and sensitivity to singers. It’s a big-boned reading and the LSO plays its collective heart out for their Chief. Soloists are ideally memorable and the horn section is to die for. Christine Brewer makes a fine Agathe. Her ample voice is beautifully shaded when required and her prayer is most moving. New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill sings the vacillating hero Max. His voice is clear and penetrating but it’s a tight…

1 August, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Monk, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Tao: Solo piano works (Tao)

Is there anything that 19-year-old American musical prodigy Conrad Tao can’t do? Here’s a kid whose concert party-piece is to appear as soloist in both the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto and Violin Concerto in the one concert; he’s already won eight ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards; this month he’s curating his own festival, made possible through various career grants, and now, with an exclusive contract, EMI have anointed him as the beacon of hope amid their recent slough- of-despond merger machinations. So his debut full-length piano album had better be good, right? Well it is good, refreshing even, right from the outset where he begins with the seemingly implausible choice of avant-garde polymath Meredith Monk’s Railroad (Travel Song), straight out of the contemporary American minimalist library and ultimately proving an inspired choice, both for its crossover appeal and its sense of a journey lying ahead. Here is a teenaged artist who grew up in a world where the old distinctions between high and low art, classical and pop have broken down, and where iTunes lists the great symphonies and sonatas as “Songs”. And it’s as “Songs” that he plays the selection of Rachmaninov solo piano Preludes, forming the first part…

25 July, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Korngold: Incidental Music, Sinfonietta (Helsinki Philharmonic)

  The son of a music critic, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a child prodigy in the mould of Mozart and Mendelssohn. His 43-minute Sinfonietta was written at the age of 15. In its lush orchestration, Romantic melodies and richly chromatic harmonies, it sounds like a tone poem by Richard Strauss. (Both Strauss and Mahler admired the young Erich). Forced to leave Vienna in the early 1930s, Korngold made a fresh start in the USA where he virtually invented the sound of Hollywood films. He was brought over by the Austrian director Max Reinhardt to adapt Mendelssohn’s music for a movie of A Midsummer Night’s Dream possibly on the basis of his earlier score for a theatrical production of Much Ado About Nothing. This is the first recording of the full incidental music. Korngold’s approach to Shakespeare is appropriately characterful, and the power he gets out of his chamber forces is extraordinary. He was truly a master of the orchestra. Storgårds and the Helsinki Philharmonic have given us several first-rate recordings of neglected music – including Korngold’s Symphony – and this disc is similarly successful. I don’t care for the pinched tenor of Mati Turi in Balthazar’s song (Sigh no more,…

25 July, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Dvořák, Smetana: String Quartets (Tokyo String Quartet)

  After 45 years of service, performing up to 100 concerts a year and amassing an extensive discography, the senior members of this renowned group have decided to call it a day and retire. While this valedictory release (it was recorded in 2006) seems a predictable choice with two much- loved if well-worn warhorses, it is a warm, hearted farewell that encapsulates all the virtues that have led to the group’s legendary status: unanimity of ensemble and articulation, perfect intonation and a sumptuous tonal blend second to none thanks to their four Stradivarius instruments (“The Paganini Quartet”). To expect great revelations here would be to miss the point; these performances are wise and profound, finding exactly the right tempo for every movement, rubato applied so naturally as to seem inevitable, the phrasing idiomatic and unexaggerated. They achieve that elusive goal of a great performance – the sense that it couldn’t be played any other way. Listen to the first movement of the Dvorák and marvel at the control of sonority and balance as they relax into the second subject, the tonal change registering as a warm glow of autumnal colour, or to the unforced impetus of the finale as the…

25 July, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach, Scarlatti, Handel: Baroque guitar works (Gregoriandou)

  Following on from Reinventing Guitar Vol 1, Greek classical guitarist Smaro Gregoriandou here combines innovative guitar technology with wide-ranging musicological research and a formidable technique to bring ancient sound worlds alive. For this recording Gregoriandou uses four extraordinary modern instruments: a double-course pedal guitar and a single-stringed pedal guitar with scalloped frets, both in soprano and alto sizes. It might sound gimmicky but the results speak for themselves. Take the five Scarlatti sonatas with which the program begins, all but one played on the double-course instrument. The rich, bright sonority of the harpsichord is evoked rather than made explicit, while the Iberian flavour of the music is underscored by the complex timbre and Gregoriandou’s fluid articulation and ornamentation. Bach’s famous Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV 998 benefits from the crisp, slightly dry sonority of the scalloped frets while in the following Toccata BWV 914 Gregoriandou employs the double-course instrument to great effect; the fugue is especially impressive in clarity and colour. The scalloped-fret guitar works well with the Handel items, The Harmonious Blacksmith and the Chaconne No 2. Gregoriandou’s phrasing and tonal balance is incisive and compelling, the cumulative effects the luminous offspring of the union between intellect and…

25 July, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Verdi: Overtures and Preludes (Filarmonica Della Scala)

  It’s celebrations all round as Riccardo Chailly acknowledges Verdi’s bicentenary and his own 60th birthday with a disc of overtures, preludes and ballet music from some of the composer’s best-loved operas (and more than a few of his rarer specimens). Chailly’s crack band is the Filarmonica della Scala – the opera house with which Verdi himself was most closely associated and where Chailly launched his own career. Add to that the fact that Milan is the city where Verdi died and Chailly was born, and it would seem that all the stars are aligned. The conductor’s genius is to find that special something in the familiar – in this case the preludes from La Traviata and Aida, where he draws such a luminous sound from his string section that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Wagner. There are some rollicking tub-thumpers too: the prelude to Nabucco and the perky Sinfonia from the seldom-staged Alzira. Drama takes centre stage with the brooding introduction to Gerusalemme (Verdi’s reworking of I Lombardi) and a passionately vibrant Forza del Destino overture. Chailly gauges everything to perfection and his classy orchestra brings out the detail of Verdi’s orchestration. If I found myself wanting…

25 July, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Rossini: Petite Messe solennelle

  “Good God—behold completed this poor little Mass,” wrote Rossini in the preface to his Petite Messe solennelle. “Is it indeed sacred music [la musique sacrée] that I have just written, or merely some damned music [la sacré musique]? You know well, I was born for comic opera.” It’s not hard to spot the traces of greasepaint in this “solemn little mass”, from the tenor’s jaunty “Domine Deus” to those trademark sing-song woodwinds and an interpolated “O salutaris hostia” for soprano, which sounds remarkably like a grand operatic scena. But for all the composer’s attempts at self- deprecation, the Petite Messe solennelle is a work of refinement and serenity, whose theatrical touches, if not always strictly solemn, are essential to its uplifting character. From the opening of the Kyrie, with its finely spun tempi and pellucid choral singing, this new release establishes itself as an arresting account. Pappano conducts with a meticulous hand and a masterful sense of pacing, allowing the Mass’s expansive and contemplative moments ample space to unfold without denying its effusive side and sprightly rhythms. The quartet of soloists is well chosen and balanced. Soprano Marina Rebeka particularly impresses, with incisive tone and firm grasp of the…

17 July, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Romantic Orchestra Overtures

Concert planners seem to have turned away from the overture. Time-poor 21st-century audiences want to plunge straight into the main event, yet I for one would not complain if my evening began with the high-spirited Donna Diana Overture by Rezniçek or Nicolai’s overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor. For the overture-deprived, these five separate releases are invaluable. Taken from the Decca catalogue and recorded mostly in the late 1950s, they include almost every overture of note – or every note of overtures – between Gluck and Mascagni. (Missing are Berlioz, favourites like Mendelssohn’s Hebrides and Brahms’s Academic Festival and the best 19th-century light overture: Sullivan’s for Iolanthe.) The conductors are specialists and primarily men of the theatre, so performances are idiomatic. Vol 5 has Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducting the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Florentino in Italian overtures and intermezzi; Vol 3 explores the German repertoire (including four by Beethoven and two by Schubert) with the cool, clear-headed Karl Münchinger. Viennese overtures in Vol 4 are in the capable hands of Willi Boskovsky and the Vienna Philharmonic, setting a standard in Johann Strauss and Suppé. Vol 1 contains rare music: preludes from operas which are rarely performed, such as Schreker’s Die…

17 July, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: D-Minor Partita, Beethoven: Kreutzer sonata (Vengerov, Golan)

This April 2012 recital heralded Vengerov’s return to recital work after a period where an exercise injury had forced him to concentrate on conducting. Consisting of two monumental works of the repertory, Bach’s D-Minor Partita and Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata, the program seems designed to allow the artist to re-present his credentials to the public, which he does quite convincingly. Although structured like a suite of dances, the Partita issues the performer with enormous artistic challenges in shaping the musical material, most especially in the concluding Ciaccona. Vengerov chooses a stately and spacious approach on the whole, leaving quicksilver effects to others. (Richard Tognetti comes to mind.) I was left with the impression that in his Bach playing Venegerov is anxious to make every note count with beauty and weight of tone. Admirable though this is, the listener can lose sight of the bigger picture and the rhythmic thrust inherent in the dance-like origins of the work. Supported by Itamar Golan’s empathetic pianism, Vengerov’s Beethoven is thoroughly irenic. The joy of performing is powerfully communicated by both players and they give this famous work a wonderful breadth of expression. The Presto finale is particularly appealing when it is delivered with the…

17 July, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Mendelssohn: Works for solo piano (Shelley)

  Given that Felix Mendelssohn was one of the greatest pianists of his age, it is surprising that his writing for his own instrument has not stood the test of time, unlike his large-scale orchestral and choral works. The sonatas are not seen as breaking new ground and it’s only the sets of Lieder ohne Worte that have held their own on record and in the concert hall. His 20th-century reputation is for Victorian sentimentality and lack of depth, so his music feels ripe for reassessment. This appealing selection of early pieces – a sonata, some “characteristic pieces”, a capriccio and the lovely first book of Songs Without Words – reveals a young composer following in the footsteps of Clementi, Hummel and Weber while still paying homage to the great J.S. Bach. There’s plenty to delight here. The madcap Capriccio in F-Sharp Minor, Op 5 is all scurrying figurations and galumphing leaps with a cleverly interpolated fugue in the middle. The seven Charakterstücke are a revelation: crafted, varied and imaginative genre pieces foreshadowing Schumann. The only disappointment is the pretty but rather rambling sonata. Howard Shelley’s approach is accomplished and respectful, with plenty of insights. Given that so much of…