April 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: LIMINAL (double bass: Nick Tsiavos, percussion: Eugene Ughetti)

This is an outstanding new Australian release, a beautiful and moving disc. Liminal is somewhat reminiscent of the “holy minimalism” of Górecki and Tavener, recorded with clean resonance. Beneath the liquid surface, however, lies an undercurrent of just-contained fire.  Nick Tsiavos is a very active Melbourne double bassist and composer; he’s one of those quiet achievers whose work you may have heard without knowing it. His music is a fusion of ancient Byzantine chant, European jazz, minimalism and the free-form exuberance of ’70s rock. The eight pieces here draw together two strands of his work. Earlier discs like Transference, recorded late at night in a giant incinerator, comprise rich yet understated solo improvisations. By contrast, his quintet Jouissance reinterprets medieval and renaissance music within a contemporary frame.  The opening track here, Axion estin, sets the tone – resonant bells and long-stretched bass notes support Deborah Kayser’s ethereal voice. The Shaman Dances are more exuberant and catchy. The stylistic range of these performers is extraordinary and the production is sublime.

April 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HINDEMITH Music for Viola and Orchestra (viola: Lawrence Power, BBC SO/Atherton)

Despite the received wisdom that his music is dry and academic, much of the material is energetic and convivial – even witty. The viola was his instrument and he composed seven sonatas for it, in addition to these pieces. The two neo-classical works, Konzertmusik Op 48 and Kammermusik No 5, are 20th-century takes on Handel’s Concerti Grossi and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti respectively and feature masterful orchestration – especially in the superlative woodwind writing and bustling outer movements – while affording ample scope for the viola’s exquisitely soulful qualities. His only fully fledged concerto for the viola was Der Schwanendreher (“The Swan Turner”). This is based on old German folksongs, played by an iterant fiddler (the viola soloist), in an attempt to evoke the spirit of a more innocent age; understandable, considering Germany’s increasingly bleak political climate (Hindemith was resolutely anti-Nazi). This is the jewel in Hindemith’s crown; anyone who finds his music sterile should listen to the duet between viola  and harp and woodwind chorale in the introduction to the beautiful slow movement. The remaining work, Trauermusik (“Music for Mourning”) has a connection with Schwanandreher: when Hindemith was in London for the UK premiere, King George V died. Hindemith composed Trauermusik in…

April 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEAUTIES & BEASTS Music for piano four hands (Igor Machlak, Olga Kharitonova)

I was somewhat baffled by this CD. It’s clearly a promotional tool for Stuart & Sons Pianos on the new Leatham Music label, produced by Gregory Lewis and engineered by Trevor Doddridge in All Saints Anglican Church, Albury. Fair enough, but the title, Beauties and Beasts, becomes rather confusing. The inclusion of the four-handed arrangement of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite is fine, especially since one movement is called Beauty and the Beast. The next piece, Part 1 of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, is understandable, although the abrupt, unresolved ending makes it more like a “bleeding chunk”. I was also reminded of Stravinsky’s remark that Karajan’s first interpretation of his Rite of Spring was a “pet savage, not a real one!” The second two works on the CD hardly reinforce the theme: Schubert’s Waltzes, Op 18A, radiate Biedemeier charm and Gemütlichkeit but are hardly in the same ethereal world as Ravel’s Mother Goose and I can’t for the life of me see anything primitive, let alone bestial, in the selection of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, which complete the disc. Despite the rather jolly, not to say robust, appearance of the pianists, the playing is sensitive and imaginative, especially in the Ravel and…

April 6, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MENDELSSOHN Symphony No 2 Lobgesang “Hymn of Praise” (Ruth Ziesak, Mojca Erdmann, Christian Elsner, MDR Choir and SO/Markl

This distinguished performance of a much maligned work, more a symphonic cantata than a real symphony, will no doubt form another step in its rehabilitation, although it’s doubtful that Lobgesang “Hymn of Praise” will ever occupy the same exalted rank as the Scottish or Italian Symphonies. It was composed in 1840 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of printing with moveable type – it’s always intrigued me that the powers that be apparently saw fit to celebrate in religious terms the invention of what, in its time, must have caused as great an explosion of knowledge and information as the Internet and Google have done in ours. With at least one Anglican clergyman among my own ancestors, I’ve no wish to denigrate the Protestant religion, which was in itself a major liberating force in Western Europe, but with Mendelssohn everything often ends up sounding Lutheran. That said, this is an absolute cracker, as a performance, recording and interpretation. Märkl invests the opening movement with admirable vigour, as if determined to sweep away portentousness; the Adagio is also purged of etiolated Victorian piety (just!) The unusual combination of singers (two sopranos and a tenor) is also impressive: Ruth Ziesak and Mojca Erdmann…

April 5, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: DAUGHERTY Route 66, Ghost Ranch, Sunset Strip, Time Machine (Bournemouth SO/Alsop)

Reading Daugherty’s liner notes to this collection of works for orchestra, it’s clear that what inspires his music is unpredictable and mostly extramusical. Route 66 is a big, boisterous Cadillac of a piece, intended to convey the experience of driving from Illinois to California. In only seven busy, energetic minutes, Daugherty’s writing bombards your ears with the full dynamic and textural ranges of the very capable Bournemouth Symphony. Sunset Strip follows a similar thematic vein (as the title suggests), although it is, ironically, a longer journey (composed in three movements) allowing for moments of ear-relieving sparsity. Slightly less in-your-face than the asphalt-alluding works is Ghost Ranch, inspired by the life and paintings of American artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Each contrasting movement attempts to paint a different image, each of which is described in the liner notes. I couldn’t glean much of a relationship between sound and text, but the music is harmonically varied and eminently easy on the ear – so who cares? Time Machine calls for three conductors (Alsop is joined by Mei-Ann Chen and Laura Jackson) and an orchestra split into three parts. It’s an interesting concept – but one wasted on CD. Even so, the writing is dramatic and…

April 5, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: LUTOSLAWSKI Orchestral Works (BBC Symphony Orchestra/Gardner)

For many composers the 20th century was an era of paranoia. For some, particularly in Europe, the paranoia was about survival. Mostly, however, the paranoia was aesthetic; after the fall of tonality all doors were open. Which notes to use? How many notes to use? Whose notes to use? When to use them? Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski developed his own very individual response to this problem with a technique he called “limited aleatorism”. Instrumentalists would play their own carefully notated parts in their own time and at their own pace, cued by a conductor, creating a spaciousness and depth that is refreshed by every performance. You can hear this in the two masterful later works on this disc, both from the 1980s. Chain 3 and the Symphony No 3 are inventive and free, their constantly shifting branches teeming with life. The much earlier Concerto For Orchestra (1950-54), Lutoslawski’s first big hit in the West, is a different beast. It’s colourful, clever and compelling, threaded with references to Polish folksong – but compared to the later works sounds at times a little academic. What frees it is its energy; the flourish of the dance (a remnant of the composer’s years as…

April 5, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: LOVE SONGS (mezzo-soprano: Anne Sophie von Otter, piano: Brad Mehldau)

The first disc is the closest to the classic art song in style, allowing Anne Sofie von Otter to give full expression to these songs. Five are settings by Mehldau of poems by the early American poet Sara Teasdale, with one poem each from e.e. cummings and Philip Larkin. Von Otter invests these with plenty of rubato and emotion; this is her disc. The second disc shows more freedom in a light pop-jazz way. Although von Otter confesses she dares not try improvisation, she is able to cope easily with Mehldau’s mildly swinging approach to standards by composers including Richard Rodgers, Joni Mitchell, Lennon-McCartney, Bernstein and a group of French masters of the genre, including Michel Legrand and Jacques Brel. She does this by mainly observing rhythm and melody and lightening up the intense interpretative expression we heard earlier. Lightness is the key. It is a pleasant compilation, but one disc might have sufficed. The first grouping is not varied enough in mood to sustain interest throughout; the second disc never quite takes off into the heights of great singing or inspired jazz. Still, it’s a worthy first effort for these collaborators and next time around could see take-off.

April 5, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: LLOYD WEBBER Music (Bryn Terfel, André Rieu, Sarah Brightman et al)

Lovers of musicals usually fall into either the Broadway camp or the Lloyd Webber camp. The skirmishes between the two are frequent, bloody and pointless. It’s simply a case of incompatible sensibilities: Webber writes modern light opera (i.e. all dialogue is sung) with an operatic, often overblown sense of drama and pathos; Broadway shows traditionally interleave spoken dialogue with musical numbers, highlight the pizzazz of the performer and wield a sense of irony absent in Webber’s work.  But even fans of Webber may be a touch disappointed by this double CD, in which many beloved songs are rendered as instrumentals. Starlight Express, The First Man You Remember and I Don’t Know How to Love Him are performed by the likes of cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and André Rieu.These instrumentals sound dangerously like elevator music. Fortunately, for the tracks that are sung, Decca has deployed some of the finest voices you could desire. Sarah Brightman tackles Whistle Down the Wind; Anna Netrebko sings the Pie Jesu from the Requiem; Renée Fleming and Bryn Terfel croon the enchanting duet All the Love I Have from The Beautiful Game. In short, there is one fabulous disc’s worth of music on this 2-CD set.

March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Roots Travellers (Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan)

The energy emanating from this exciting disc and accompanying DVD of Indian traditional music is almost palpable. In concert, the Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan dance, contort and breathe fire, as well as singing traditional folk songs from the deserts and light classical songs from North India. Led by tabla player Rahis Bharti, the group is formed around a pulsating percussion base, with morsing (jew’s harp), dholak (drum), kartal (wooden clappers) and several tablas. Over this weaves the bowed, cello-like sarangi and the harmonium, introduced to India by French missionaries in the mid 19th-century. With several vocalists, their music is part of the lineage which includes the Sufi qawwali devotional singers such as the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The wedding song Banno excites with its pounding drumbeat; the tongue-in-cheek Rajasthani Reggae is an invitation to love sung over a loping tabla rhythm. Vocalist Sanjay Khan hauntingly sings of the Wind of Love over bowed sarangi strings before the short frenzied dancing finale of Horse Chale Rhythm. Like the musicians of The Manganiyar Seduction, the Dhoad Gypsies from Rajasthan keep alive a vibrant musical tradition.

March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Black Swan: original motion picture soundtrack (Clint Mansell)

Clint Mansell is the former frontman of UK band Pop Will Eat Itself and the composer of cult scores for Darren Aronofsky films Pi, Requiem for a Dream and, now, Black Swan. The soundtrack to this ballet thriller is a bold reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  Mansell doesn’t quite have the musical chops to take Tchaikovsky’s score apart himself – but, with the help of arranger-conductor Matt Dunkley, he has concocted 16 tracks of atmospheric instrumental music which dance around moments of high drama in Tchaikovsky’s score. These are given rather silly names – Opposites Attract, A Room of her Own, It’s My Time – which relate to the movie, but say nothing about the music. Still, on the whole, this is an interesting undertaking – Swan Lake seen through a glass darkly. And Mansell has the good judgement and taste to let Tchaikovsky’s music speak for itself when necessary.

March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest picks up where the previous film left off – with Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) in hospital with gunshot wounds. Charged with the attempted murder of her father (she planted an axe in his head), she relies on her old friend and lover Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) to prove her innocence, to take down the authorities who conspired to keep her locked up and silent since she was 12 years old. There are Russian defectors, dodgy psychiatrists, courtroom antics and more.  Containing none of the excitement or even the elegance of the first film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hornet’s Nest is cumbersome and way too long. Clocking in at 150 minutes, it’s as though the filmmakers were afraid to upset the book’s squillions of fans by condensing the narrative to make a more intriguing and enjoyable experience.  The performances are all good and there are thrills to be had, but with the book being adhered to so closely there is little chance of getting under the skin of any of the key characters. If I hadn’t seen the previous films, or read the books, I would have been confused.

March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PROKOFIEV Violin Concerto No 2 • RACHMANINOV Symphonic Dances (violin: Genevieve Laurenceau, Toulouse National Orch/Sokhiev)

Written in 1940, the Symphonic Dances was Rachmaninov’s final orchestral work. Regarded as hopelessly retrospective at the time, it has since been re-evaluated as a masterpiece. The first movement begins with a stamping, syncopated rhythm, alternating with a wistful lament from the alto saxophone. The second movement is a restless waltz that is never content to settle into a single key. The kaleidoscopic third movement closes explosively with the Dies Irae chant, a musical theme that haunted the melancholic composer all his life. Its central episode, a yearning chromatic passage for strings, is as far from the world of dance as could be. The work has been recorded often by more famous orchestras, but Sokhiev gives an impressive and thoughtful performance. His feeling for rubato is spot on. He is not afraid to slow down for lyrical moments, yet the underlying momentum is never sacrificed. Orchestral balance is excellent, and the woodwind soloists play beautifully. The unusual coupling of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto displays the same virtues. The slow movement’s tender melody is spun out effectively by Laurenceau. This young Strasbourg-born violinist made her reputation in chamber music. She plays the tough moments of this concerto accurately, but has neither…

March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PAGANINI Violin Concerto No 1 • TCHAIKOVSKY Serenade Melancolique (violin: Midori, LSO/Slatkin)

Midori was only 13 or 14 when she recorded this account of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto and two morsels by Tchaikovsky, the Sérénade Mélancolique Op 26 and the Valse Scherzo Op 34. Yet the virtuosic demands of the first and last of these pieces do not daunt her; nor does she ever sound as if sheer virtuosity is an end in itself. These are satisfying performances with no allowance needed for her youthfulness. There is a technical drawback – but it is not hers. Rather, the primitive digital recording technology of the time (this recording dates from 1987) denies her the sonic richness which earlier analogue record producers brought to a fine art, and which today’s digital engineers have rediscovered. There’s a rather dry, clinical feel in the recording. It’s for this reason that Midori’s account of the Paganini, although a satisfying performance, can’t really supplant such fantastic earlier versions as the mid-1980s recording by Itzhak Perlman or (my personal favourite) the incandescent 1950 account by Leonid Kogan. It is, however, fascinating to hear the Paganini set against the two pieces by Tchaikovsky – the reflective Sérénade and Tchaikovsky’s own excursion into the wilds of virtuosity, the impetuous Valse Scherzo.