January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ROGER Piano Sonata; Piano Trio; Variations on an Irish Air (Gould Piano Trio)

So assuming we start with only limited knowledge of him or his music, we can at least hear that he left this world while in a rather sombre mood. If one had to pin down one key characteristic of Roger’s style, it would be a sensitivity to the nature of individual instruments, when he scores them as interactively as he does here. For example, in the Quintet for clarinet, two violins, viola and cello, he lets the clarinet participate in proceedings, rather than dominate them, finding a pitch for it that at times actually masks its identity as a clarinet. Given that the next item here happens to be the earliest of these works, his Piano Sonata (1943), the fact they share the same feeling means we do not need long to mark a consistency in Roger’s work. On the way through, he lifts the mood with a slightly less dour feel at mid-point for the Trio, and reveals a shade more thoughtfulness in the earlier Variations. Roger writes with no sign of heavy-handedness, delivering an overall sound that is modern, tonal mid-20th century, without conforming to any particular program or movement. The overall experience is that of an agreeable…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: DAUGHERTY Fire and Blood; MotorCity Triptych; Raise the Roof (violin: Ida Kavafian; Detroit SO/Järvi)

The composer traces musical connections to the natural drama of volcanic eruptions in Mexico, the industrial landscape of Detroit and the genesis of the civil rights movement in Alabama. The opening three-movement violin concerto, Fire and Blood, wastes no time acquainting us with what has been firing Daugherty’s musical imagination. The work channels all the energy the composer and the players can marshal directly into our ears. Kavafian works like a Trojan, and was probably thankful to have the rest of this “live” CD off to be able to recover his strength. The MotorCity Triptych is a loud and violent depiction of industrial Detroit. A listener looking for time to reflect and savour the music has come to the wrong composer. By the time we come to the third work, and Raise the Roof begins, eyes may well have been turned upwards to see if the roof was anywhere in sight after the music that had been pounding away for the best part of the previous hour. The music belongs to the mid-20th century at its noisiest and most relentless, and you may like to have a CD of recovery music handy to wind down with afterwards. Heavy metal might…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BRAHMS Piano Concerto No 2, Klavierstücke (piano: Nicholas Angelich; Frankfurt RSO/Järvi)

Nicholas Angelich certainly has the measure of this gigantic work. Any performance lasting more than 50 minutes is usually in trouble; any lasting less than, say, 46, likewise. At just over 48, Angelich is splendidly central – in terms of tempi at least. However, his opening movement reveals his technique, insights and sensitivity as equally impressive, with Olympian grandeur tempering this storm-tossed music.  In the scherzo, Angelich is truly demonic, but more adversarial than belligerent in his attitude to the orchestra. The cello solo at the opening of the slow movement I find slightly mundane, but it seems more eloquent in its subsequent appearance. Here, Angelich finds much beautifully veiled yet profound emotion, whereas in the finale, he is delightfully skittish.  The eight Klavierstücke Op 76 are an excellent complement. Although composed at much the same time, they occupy a different world. Titled either Capriccio or Intermezzo, all are gentle and introspective, except No 2, sprightly and even spiky, and No 5, with its touches of restrained rhetoric, providing a foretaste of the radiant autumnal quality of Brahms’ later piano pieces. Angelich reveals more sense of Innigkeit – “inwardness”, very important in Brahms – than Ciccolini or even Gieseking.

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SWEELINCK Psaumes français; Canciones Sacrae (Cappella Amsterdam/Reuss)

This CD, another of many which present their entire length free of instruments, is packaged with the usual care and precision of harmonia mundi, sharply constructed and printed with a learned but readable description of the people and their music, with no unwanted capital letters. Cappella Amsterdam has developed under its director Daniel Reuss over the past 40 years to their present formidable strength. Of the 25 members pictured in the group photo in the liner notes, 18 of them are granted individual parts to sing on this recording. But it’s impossible to pick anyone out, as the essence of the idea is that the choir delivers all that is heard, with no allowance for solo deviations. It would take an early vocal music specialist to really separate the ten works presented here into significant individual items, though the words are all there for the asking in the usual languages. The sound quality of the recording is consistent throughout, conforming with all relevant expectations. There is clearly a sizeable market out there for historic sacred music of this type, judging by the number of new releases we see every year. This particular disc meets all the criteria for respectability without…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ANGEL SONGS (Choir of Trinity College, University of Melbourne/Jones)

The most modern composition – and the only secular piece on the album – is derived from a lullaby (‘Goodnight my Angel’ by American pop singer Billy Joel), which is given the full King’s Singers treatment by that vocal group’s chief arranger. It’s a very cloying piece indeed, matched here in saccharine levels only by one of my pet hates, Brahms’ Lullaby. But those two are the only doses of cloying sweetness found on this rich anthology of near-perfect choral singing, which also forms a platform for some very fine soloists from the Trinity College choir. Composers featured here include Mozart, Handel, Mendelssohn, Purcell and Haydn, while modern choral specialists such as John Rutter, David Willcocks and Herbert Howells are also heard to fine advantage. It’s very difficult to single out just one piece from the 20 choral works presented here. But soprano Siobhan Stagg’s contribution to Mozart’s Laudate Dominum is certainly worthy of special mention for its clarity and purity. The exultant Purcell offering, ‘Hark! The echoing Air’ from The Fairy Queen is given a truly exultant performance by the ensemble, with fine playing from trumpeter Mark Fitzpatrick and cellist Michelle Wood. The recording, which was made in the…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RUO To the Four Corners (conductor: Huang Ruo)

He describes some of his musicians as dramatists in real time, a notion that Ruo tosses off in his closely reasoned appraisal of what form he wants his music to take. Since this is a CD, however, we only have our ears to help us work out what is going on. This is a considerable problem. What do we need to do to appreciate the sound of what Ruo calls “kinetic painting”, for example? And more importantly for someone who has to review it, how many stars is it worth? Aurally, which is the only way we have to judge Ruo’s work, this seems to be music in the style of contemporary leading edge. Western and Chinese instruments are deployed in complex interactions that have nothing much to do with anything traditional or even familiar in musical structure. Without making it easy to get to grips with his methods, then, Ruo is committed to nudging music in directions nobody else seems to know are feasible, or has any interest in exploring. His work is certainly a struggle to decode, but there is a sense to Ruo’s music that affirms the composer as articulate and sensitive

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ELGAR Pomp and Circumstance Marches; Serenade for Strings (SSO/Ashkenazy)

Exton is a Japanese label which is in partnership with the Sydney Symphony to bring us high-definition recordings in Super Audio CD format. This is one of several SACDs which presents conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy’s interpretations of England’s most beloved composer, Edward Elgar.  Ashkenazy and the SSO do Elgar proud. These six Pomp and Circumstance Marches are in turn swaggering, majestic, even thoughtful and troubled, and Ashkenazy is totally in tune with his material. At high volume, this SACD has tremendous depth and impact. The brass section really bites and the percussive power has to be heard to be believed.  There’s a tremendous range of expression in these six marches and these are model performances, especially of my favourite among them, the Third. That reference to the six marches isn’t a misprint. Elgar had always intended to write six marches, and left sketches for the last. Contemporary composer Anthony Payne has fleshed out these sketches to give us the missing march. The result works out as half-Elgar and half-Payne, but it complements the authentic five very well. The Pomp and Circumstance Marches dominate the disc, but it’s also a real pleasure to have a sensitive, finely-textured performance of Elgar’s 1892 work…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: JENKINS Stella Natalis; Joy To The World (Tenebrae, Adiemus Singers, Marylebone Camerata/Jenkins)

Yet more variations on his patent Adiemus sound are repackaged here into two lengthy, multi-movement feel-good serves, one of them devoted to a kind of shopping-centre evocation of Christmas. His customary warm vocalisations hint at something vaguely holy, intoning words mostly scribed, this time, by the pen of his wife, Carol Barratt – “handy and cheap”, as she rather disarmingly puts it. Trumpet and voice trill merrily, and, as always, the music that Jenkins makes is soothing and pleasant enough on the ear to defy any curmudgeonly whispers of it not being real classical music. His forte as a composer is his unerring affinity with his audience: that chunk of the music-buying demographic that simply wants something to smile to. The similarity of this album to all his others will surely bring him another gold disc at the very least. There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of that: Jenkins may have had the devil’s own job working to perfect the trademark sound that has won him so much success. But having done so, he now feels no compulsion to compose anything different than what has gone before. And given that the Welsh composer has garnered the laudatory acceptance…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MUSSORGSKY • SCHUMANN Pictures at an Exhibition; Kinderszenen (piano: Lief Ove Andsnes)

The recording of Pictures at an Exhibition is in fact the soundtrack to a staged performance and video installation by Andsnes and collaborator Robin Rhode. The performance has been filmed, and the liner notes tell us that Pictures Reframed involves the “murder” of a piano and a leap into the icy North Sea. This disc, however, is the pauper’s edition – there is a much more expensive deluxe version which gives us both the recording and a DVD of the Andsnes-Rhode collaboration. On audio terms alone, this is a straightforward and relatively unflamboyant performance of Pictures at an Exhibition. Like Vladimir Horowitz before him, Andsnes claims to find parts of Mussorgsky’s original composition quite awkward, and seeks to improve on them himself. His rewriting is subtle and not too destructive of a work I’ve always thought as best left unimproved. The Kinderszenen is a gentle, very persuasive reading and both this and the Pictures are given a sumptuous, velvety sheen that brings the ambience of London’s Henry Wood Hall right into your home. Mussorgsky’s Four Short Pieces, a rarely-heard 10-minute suite, rounds out a worthwhile set, though I think the full DVD/CD deluxe package would be more satisfying.

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Chopin 4 Ballade; Sonata No 3 (piano: Jean-Philippe Collard)

It was a salutary recording to listen to. I’d been disappointed recently when reviewing the Collard recording of Chopin waltzes, which I found strangely perfunctory. No such reservations here. This reading certainly deserves its re-issue, which will go in my shelves alongside the classic Rubenstein reading and the recent sensational account by Maurizio Pollini.Particularly notable is Collard’s performance of the most challenging of the Ballades, the F-minor, as it moves from dreamy beauty to electrifying drama. The acoustic of the recording goes a long way in creating its atmosphere. The album, which dates from 1990, was recorded in the famous Salle Wagram in Paris, and is marked by a remarkable natural depth and resonance – which is never so “plummy” it masks the crisp articulation of Collard’s playing. If there is a flaw in this release, it comes solely from EMI Classic’s decision to issue here a straight version of the French CD, complete with a double-fold essay on the music. French is the only language option offered – there is not even a website translation offered for English readers. The language of music may well be universal, but Australian buyers deserve more than this when they spend money on a…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ROSSINI Colbran, the Muse (mezzo: Joyce DiDonato; Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Muller)

Many of Rossini’s most fiendishly embellished arias for mezzo-soprano were written for his own wife, Spanish singer Isabella Colbran. In fact, from 1815 until 1823, when her vocal powers had faded, almost all his major operas were created around her. Now another diva, the American mezzo Joyce DiDonato, has taken up the Colbran challenge and given us a thrilling recital of some of the key arias of this period, from Armida, La Donna del Lago, Maometto II, Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, Semiramide, Otello and Armida.  While Joyce DiDonato is the undoubted star of this recording, she is given fine partnership by orchestra and chorus, and by tenors Lawrence Brownlee, Corrado Amici and Carlo Putelli, and soprano Roberta de Nicola.  Joyce DiDonato, acclaimed widely as one of the finest mezzos performing today, is probably giving us these arias at a level Rossini could only have dreamed of, for although Isabella Colbran inspired them, her own voice was in steep decline in the latter years of her career. But fading or not, the partnership of Rossini and his muse did give us some of the composer’s most exciting writing. Often flamboyant, sometimes deeply sensitive, but always vibrant, these terrific arias would stretch any…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas (piano: Steven Osborne)

For once, the hype is justified. I’ve joined the ranks of reviewers who’ve dived for the thesaurus to unearth new superlatives for Steven Osborne’s Beethoven CD. It’s not easy to cast new light on the Waldstein, let alone the Moonlight or Pathétique sonatas, but somehow he’s managed it.  The Moonlight’s opening movement, piano’s equivalent of the Mona Lisa’s smile, radiates not only sublime mystery, but also charm, as Osborne navigates his way through this strange landscape. Upon hearing the unexpected courtliness of Osborne’s second movement, one is reminded of Liszt’s insightful description of it as “a flower between two abysses”.  The Waldstein is even more of a tour de force than usual: time really does seem to stand still in the transition from the adagio to the final rondo. And Osborne invests the central movement of the sonatina-like Op 79 with a touchingly demure melancholy. Transcendent is a dangerous adjective, but here it is fully justified. The emergence of the Waldstein’s main theme is gloriously unhurried and quite sublimely handled, culminating in a refulgent effect. No wonder this sonata is usually referred to in France as L’Aurore – The Dawn.

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: WESLEY-SMITH Merry-Go-Round: Chamber Music (percussion: Timothy Constable; Australia Ensemble)

Here though, we have a CD in which the composer’s motivations are so intrinsic to understanding his work that you almost find yourself listening intently to each note for what it may tell you about the South Australian Wesley-Smith. More fundamentally, about what he cares about. Firstly, humanitarianism: Wesley-Smith is music’s defender of the rights of the East Timorese people. But what seems like a political statement can just as easily morph into a jazz pastiche. Secondly, a playful response to childhood classics: he worked for years writing music for children’s television and radio. These are works composed by a man who finds, wherever he looks in the world, the inspiration to create a sparkling micro-environment of sound. The performance, largely wind-based, has just the lightness of touch it needs without fudging the depth of feeling embedded in the music. If the track titles themselves sound rather lightweight – Snark-Hunting, Merry-Go-Round, Oom Pah Pah – we can sense this is simply Wesley-Smith’s way. He applies a quality of understatement that is lacking in the subjects he tackles. His music is tuneful and harmonic, mordant and inquisitive, suddenly pausing for moments of reflection without resorting to melodic sentimentality. Wesley-Smith does right…

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