January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Violin Sonatas Nos 2, 5,10 (violin: Alina Ibragimova, piano: Cédric Tiberghien)

Again, their readings are marked by a seemingly infinite variety of inflections, astutely calculated nuances and exquisitely judged tempi. Listen to the way they play the deliberately out-of-sync notes in the Spring Sonata’s tiny scherzo (all 81 seconds of it, displaying Beethoven’s rather tentative approach to the idea of the four-movement sonata!), or the delightfully delicate way they negotiate the finale to the Op 12 No 2, when the piano reaches the end one bar later than the violinist. Hilary Finch, in her excellent sleeve notes, writes of the melody in the first movement of the Spring Sonata as “irresistibly vernal, creative sap rising freely…” which makes the drama of the second half of the movement all the more effectively contrasted. For all these delights, my greatest interest lay in the Op 96, Beethoven’s last Violin Sonata. Unlike the symphonies, piano sonatas and string quartets, Beethoven’s violin sonatas did not penetrate his “late” period, so this work is as close as we get. Nonetheless, it’s still enigmatic: its opening trill always seems to come out of silence as the continuation of music which has already begun. The overall mood of the work is lyrical, with a delightfully spiky scherzo, realized…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Hear my Words: Choral Classics from St. John’s (Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge/Nethsingha)

For many, the hot ticket item will be Allegri’s Miserere, which opens the disc. The old Kings College recording set the benchmark with impeccable boy solo work. So it is a pleasure to say that the St John’s boys are in top form. Worth noting is the difference in style between the two famous choirs. St John’s evince a more robust sound. Grieg is represented by Ave, maris stella, which is a bit dull. Pärt’s brisker, O virgin, Mother of God, is welcome, and Rachmaninov gives us an entirely different reading of the same text, steeped in deep-throated Russian orthodoxy. Palestrina, Parsons and Tallis remind us of the austere world of earlier church music. Following the beautiful piety of these early composers, and especially the perfumed sweetness of Franck’s Panis angelicus and Fauré’s exquisite Cantique de Jean Racine, it is a relief to get to the engaging heartiness of Stanford’s Jubilate Deo. Vaughan Williams, John Rutter and James MacMillan are represented by O taste and see, Oh Lord, thou hast searched me out, and A New Song, respectively. Appropriately, Parry’s Hear my words, ye people brings this attractive collection to an end with a vigorous show of Anglican robustness. At…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Beau Soir (Janine Jansen, Itamar Golan)

The great names of French music leap out, and we are also tantalised by the inclusion of the famous name of Boulanger. In this case, Lili, sister of famous teacher and musicologist Nadia. Lili’s contribution is a limpid three-minute Nocturne with a passionate central section. Less well known is the Swiss composer, Richard Dubugnon, who Jansen tells us is heir to the French sound.And it is true; Dubugnon’s pieces are safely at home with his famous colleagues Debussy, Ravel and Fauré – so much so that it is not always easy to tell where some of their music stops and his begins. He has three works on the CD: La Minute Exquise, Hynos and Retour à Montfort-l’Amaury. This last was written for the CD and is the most vigorous of the three. Messiaen’s splendid Thème et Variations is from the same oeuvre as Quatuor pour la fin du temps. The composer ranges widely from intimate delicacy to an energetic, passionate vigour that forms the core of the work. Fauré’s Après un rêve, which follows, sounds as if it could be an extra variation. One of the larger works on the CD is Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, a fine…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TCHAIKOVSKY The Nutcracker (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Rattle)

Tchaikovsky’s ballets are the chick flicks of classical music, but like the best chick flicks they can be witty and reveal a light touch. The Nutcracker is crammed with memorable tunes and piquant orchestration – including the recently invented celeste in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – and shows the composer at the peak of his abilities in the famous point numbers of Act 2. The Waltz of the Flowers lilts as flightily as anything by Johannes Strauss. Right from the opening Miniature Overture we know we are in for some magic. Last year, Australian audiences got to sample the Berlin Phil in the flesh. They sounded impressive live, and do so again here. This is a lush orchestra, not a theatre pit band, and under Rattle they give a full-hearted performance. The conductor points and details the lyrical phrases, sometimes too indulgently, but his relaxed tempos never drag. The sound is good if a little dry, and rather light at the bass end of the spectrum. This is a double CD set, unlike Gergiev’s tougher, snappier version, but the extra outlay is worth it. Rattle’s discs come with a colourful booklet filled with beautifully reproduced costume designs,…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Debussy: Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra; Ravel: Piano Concerto in G; Concerto for the Left Hand; Massenet: Piano works (Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, BBC Symphony Orc

Ravel’s wonderful Piano Concerto in G continues to be one of the most popular in the concert hall and on record, but each time I hear it I am made aware of how difficult the perfect ensemble playing is to achieve. His Concerto for the Left Hand requires a different approach, for here the broad sweep of Ravel’s ideas are paramount. Mostly this is achieved in this excellent recording. Only the rapid-fire trumpets in the explosion of sound at the five-minute mark are lost. Bavouzet is at his eloquent best in the slower movements of both concerti. Debussy’s piece is a mixture of old and new, and although not top-drawer Debussy, it is a delightful work. This, and a selection of Massenet’s piano music, is what separates this CD from the pack. It is rare repertoire and unfamiliar to me. I think lovers of French piano music will be as delighted as I was. Massenet’s Toccata is a brilliant piece and although it predates much of Ravel, is very companionable. Deux Impromtus and Deux Pièces pour piano find Massenet in a more mellifluous mood. Finally Valse folle is quite rambunctious and punchy. Bavouzet plays all the music exquisitely. Never lacking…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Santo (tenor: Juan Diego Florez; Orchestra e coro del Teatro Communale di Bologna/Mariotti)

But after a series of solo discs which maintained this focus, and one charming excursion into South-American pop songs, Flórez has now hit upon a project which allows him to branch out: sacred songs. Seasonal favourites like O Come All Ye Faithful and Franck’s Panis angelicus jostle alongside music from Fux, Ariel Ramírez and even Flórez himself. It’s good to hear the tenor cast his net so wide; and yet, it has to be said, it’s still on home territory that he sounds his best – shiningly immaculate in arias from florid bel canto-era masses, soulful and relaxed in the Latin textures of Ramírez’s Missa criolla or his own song Santo, an upbeat guitar-based number which takes Rossini’s lead in making a solemn text sound jaunty. But the further he moves from his usual fare, the less idiomatic Flórez sounds – contemplative music like Comfort ye and Schubert’s Ave Maria need caressing by a more limpid voice than his bright, edgy tenor, and his delivery of traditional carols, though sincere, lacks gravitas. Nevertheless, kudos to Flórez for stepping beyond his usual bounds – there are better and more beautiful sacred albums about, but Santo is still a worthy addition to…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Requiem; Exsultate, Jubilate (singers: Sara Macliver, Sally Anne Russell, Paul McMahon, Teddy Tahu Rhodes; Cantillation; Orchestra of the Antipodes/Walker)

On the first listening, I was slightly underwhelmed. This performance, with orchestra using ‘period’ instruments just didn’t deliver the liveliness and inventive brilliance this classic Requiem usually shows.The fault was mine. The next day I cranked up my amp and played it at something approaching recital hall level. The music blossomed. Instruments opened up and voices became truly dynamic. Some music needs this approach. Forget the neighbours – let everyone share in Mozart’s final creation. Yes, a Requiem is often sad. But despite the fact that Mozart was dying as he wrote it, this piece is also full of great joy. For me, there are three great Requiems, by Mozart, Verdi and Fauré; all share this transcendental nature. Of the four very capable soloists, Sara Macliver shines out, and her performance of the very beautiful Exsultate, Jubilate is a particularly fine addendum. Also included on the disc are two gems; Ave verum Corpus and Sancta Maria, mater Dei, making a fully-rounded program of Mozart’s sacred works. Antony Walker’s Cantillation choral group and his Orchestra of the Antipodes are as lustrous as ever. Walker’s career is now centred on the USA, but long may he be able to return home to…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Symphony No 4, Beethoven: Coriolan Overture (Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique; The Monteverdi Choir/Gardiner)

At first glance, Gabrieli and Schütz, glorious as they are, seem to be at odds with the symphony. Gardiner’s notes are the key to this collation. Using original instruments he has juxtaposed the symphony with some of the composer’s neglected choral music. He argues that as these wonderful works came first they are germane to his orchestral writing. The other composers were selected for their influence on his choral style and the Coriolan Overture represents the defining shadow of Beethoven. This is steely, hard-edged tough as nails Brahms. There will be those for whom this is heaven-sent, yet for all Gardiner’s dedication and well-argued rationale, much of this performance is a tiresome dose of musical political correctness. For example, the scrawny violin tone does not sit well with the composer’s grand phrases and rich palette. However, his approach works well in the lively Allegro giocoso, with its sharp rhythms and bright woodwind writing and also serves the edgy restlessness of the last movement. Musical research will continue and performance practice will evolve, as it should. Tastes will change and change again. I recommend the CD for the extensive interview between Gardiner and Hugh Wood. That alone is worth the price…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: LOCATELLI • YSAYE • CHAUSSON • SHOSTAKOVICH • RACHMANINOV Tribute to David Oistrakh (violin: Lydia Mordkovich)

This Bach-meets-Paganini tour de force begins with a prelude marked Obsession, presumably about the shadow Bach had cast over this music, but the finale Les Furies falls back on the famous Dies irae theme. In the Chausson Poème, Mordkovich is smoulderingly passionate. The jewel in the crown is the Shostakovich Sonata, Op 134 for Violin and Piano. The composer had written his Second Violin Concerto as a 60th birthday present for Oistrakh but got the years wrong and this sonata was composed for his real 60th birthday. It distills the ambience of the twilight world where ambiguity flourishes amid a thicket of coded messages, no doubt understood by Oistrakh but missed by the musical commissars. The first movement flirts, ironically, with the twelve-tone technique (strictly forbidden by the regime) in the first movement. The central allegretto consciously eschews contemplation for a manic moto perpetuo but the third movement presents a complex passacaglia (theme and variations) of increasing intensity and complexity. Again, a reference to Bach’s solo violin style emerges, this time fused with a sort of Rachmaninov-like effusiveness, only to subside ultimately into a withdrawn coda. Powerful stuff! David Oistrakh would have been proud.

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Habanera (mezzo: Elina Garanca, Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai/Chichon)

The concept gives her access to unexpectedly diverse repertoire. Several hits from Carmen appear, of course, including not only the Habanera everyone knows, but also Bizet’s rarely heard (and very different) first version of the aria; and there are songs from Falla, Obradors and Montsalvatge. But the gypsy angle also allows for surprises like I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls from Balfe’s Bohemian Girl, Lehár’s Hör ich Zymbalklänge (Zigeunerliebe) and even the Old Woman’s Tango from Bernstein’s Candide. Across this broad range of language and musical styles, Garanca’s voice is voluptuous and velvety as ever, as she revels in the sensual possibilities of tangos, habaneras and the odd csardas. Limpid, legato beauty abounds, and yet, as the disc progresses, Garanca’s arias seem to start to melt into one another. Perhaps it’s that Spanish sun, or perhaps the urge to unify so many diverse musical strands, but each selection, whatever its origin, is imbued with roughly the same sultry colours. The result, while eminently listenable, and with moments of loveliness, has a certain superficiality to it. Garanca has proven her ability to compel, but in Habanera, seductively as she sways, the glamour mezzo of the hour sounds like she might…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Goetz, Wieniawski: Piano Concertos (Hamish Milne)

Hermann Goetz spent most of his life under the shadow of TB, which claimed him just before he turned 36. Judging by his letters, Goetz was as polite and charming as this concerto. Thankfully, the orchestration, so often thick and unoriginal, is refreshingly transparent and the melodies fall gratefully on the ear. If I had to guess the composer, I’d say Max Bruch, although there are inevitable echoes of Schumann and Chopin. The first movement ambles along genially and the second is delightful in a sentimental way. Things liven up slightly in the finale but, come on guys, at 41 minutes this work is only seven minutes shorter than your average Brahms Second Piano Concerto, and look at how much he managed to pack into that! The other work, by Józef Wieniawski, brother of the more famous violin virtuoso and composer Henryk, was actually composed almost a decade earlier than Goetz’s, but seems more modern. I can’t agree with the sleeve note writer that the character of this work represents Sturm und Drang, implying a fusion of tension and drama, and a relentless barrage of bravura playing. I found it only slightly more energetic than its companion. Both works are…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: For Eternity (Celine Byrne, RTE National Symphony Orchestra)

Byrne had her big break in 2007, when she won the Maria Callas Grand Prix, and she’s maintained a busy schedule – if not massive stardom – ever since. Her website’s calendar shows a preponderance of concert peformances in the last three years, with just a scattering of operatic engagements. The repertoire selected for this disc reflects that: Byrne’s chosen arias are of the warhorse species, ideal for a gala if not always for her light, lyric soprano. She sings sweetly in Micaela’s Je dis and Marguerite’s Jewel Song, but sounds shrill and pressurised in heavier fare such as Un bel dì and Vissi d’arte. No surprise that Mimì is the only Puccini heroine currently in her repertoire. Byrne’s enthusiasm for Spanish comes through engagingly, while still lacking the last degree of idiomatic finesse. A lilting rendition of Granados’s La Maja y el Ruiseñor is the most successful of these selections. There’s a sense of the concert performance about Byrne’s delivery, too. Her phrasing and diction are mostly admirable, but her approach seems to focus more on dazzling climaxes than characterisation; her singing is extroverted and personable, but a sameness creeps in, with everything from Rusalka’s Song to the Moon…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Bartók, Ligeti, Kurtag: Quartets (Cuarteto Casals)

This disc features string quartets by Bartók, Ligeti and Kurtag. All three are Hungarian, and while each spent formative years elsewhere it was their relationship to their homeland and its often tragic modern history that so significantly shaped them. The biggest name here is Bartók. His Quartet No 4 is a gutsy, primal work whose angular melodies seem freshly plucked from Hungarian soil. Composed in 1928, it could easily have been written by any number of composers today. Clearly indebted to it is Metamorphoses Nocturnes by Ligeti. This is by the young Ligeti, long before the clocks, clouds and absurdist outbursts took over – yet the later composer is not hard to find. The opening gives things away: ostensibly twelve-tone, its cool overlapping chromatic rising scales gradually warping and spiralling mercilessly out of control. The third work is Kurtag’s aptly named 12 Microludes. Barely a minute long each, these hyper-miniatures are restrained yet astonishingly rich, constantly morphing unexpectedly. The works sound impulsive and fresh in the hands of Cuarteto Casals, whose colour spectrum is unusually wide: at times whisper quiet, other times as gritty as a rock band. A brilliant disc.

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