January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Sweden: Between Triol and Sextondel (various artists)

The title translates as “Between Triplet and Semiquaver”, so no need to go looking for Triol and Sextondel on a map of Sweden. Well, unless… The violin takes precedence, instrumentally, and immediately makes you think “fiddle” rather than “violin”. One or two of the other instruments look interesting, you would not want to get your foot caught. The sound characteristics initially suggest what you might expect to hear if listening to traditional country music from other northerly places like Eire or Scotland, but perhaps that connection is innocently set adrift on the vaguely nautical wash that drifts its way in and out of one track, and then another. These are mainly traditional airs, a few composed or enhanced by the musicians themselves, who represent different generations and origins. The project reflects considerable dedication to their mission of tracking down music wherever it may crop up in any corner of Sweden, and their treatment of what they have found is more compelling than the concept might suggest. There is something curiously haunting about the consolidated sound that this overall blend of elements generates, capturing a real atmosphere, a sense of distance, far horizons and remoteness in space and time from any…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH Toccatas and Fantasias for Organ (organ: Bernard Foccroulle)

As a result this record of the Belgian organist Bernard Foccroulle playing Bach‘s most famous works for organ came as a real surprise to me. Gone are the emphatic tempi and exaggerated gestures, the gluey fingering, the creakiness and delay of the larger pipes and the bloated sense of music-making swimming in enormously reverberant acoustics that gave the worst organ playing its reputation as having an overblown sense of grandeur. However here we have tight, clean articulation that sacrifices no sense of scale in its gestures, married to bright, clear registers, all of which brings everything back to a more human scale. It feels like two centuries of dust has been blown off and Bach finally sounds like himself again and not just a test piece for subwoofers for the most expensive stereo in the hi-fi showroom. I’d have to say I enjoyed this more than any other organ CD in memory. For one, my ears remained fresh throughout, and second the quality of the recording is superb. I’d have to say based on this recording Bernard Foccroulle is the finest organist I have ever heard. To paraphrase Haydn’s compliment to Mozart – “he has great skill but more importantly…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SALZEDO Trois Morceaux CAPLET Divertissements IBERT Six Pièces (harp: Lavinia Meijer)

Plenty of good work here to satisfy harp lovers. This is thoughtful music with enough substance for Lavinia Meijer to promote herself and her instrument in just the way that her CD notes indicate she set out to do when she was eight, and the unique qualities of the harp first entranced her. She may have plucked a good few strings since then, but Meijer is still young and there must have been a considerable temptation for her backers and supporters to give her the glamour treatment.  With these French works, however, she proves that her current rising reputation is based on solid musicianship, and the image projected by this package is welcome for its restraint. Each of the three pieces has more to it than is often the case with material used for the purposes of harp recital. They may all be 20th century vintage, but none of them would count as experimental. Rather, the overall effect is generally subdued and understated, with an air of deliberation in exploring the capabilities of the instrument. Thematic developments are given the space they need to take place in their own time, without being forced. In the end, this is not an attempt by Meijer to dazzle…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VARIOUS COMPOSERS (The Swingle Singers)

The a capella group The Swingle Singers were originally a French vocal group, founded by Ward Swingle back in 1962, but this 4-disc set represents the 1990s output of a later ensemble, based in London. This excruciatingly twee group has lasted more than four decades. Travel to the wrong parts of the world and you’re likely to still run the danger of hearing them in concert. They just will not give up on their quest to merge the traditions of American jazz scat-singing and European classical music, and lose the best parts of both along the way. The four albums in this set are A Capella Amadeus: A Mozart Celebration, and although Mozart had a strong sense of humour,I doubt if he would have been amused by what the Swingles do to the Overture to The Magic Flute, or to any of the other selections from his operas, piano concertos and sacred music. Bach Hits Back is the Swingle’s second attempt to destroy JS Bach’s reputation. Sadly, despite the title, Bach cannot hit back. The third album, 1812, is a live concert disc which tackles Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Gershwin and even Lennon/McCartney. The collection concludes with Around the World, a folk-song…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: A Life in Song: Various arias (bass-baritone: Bruce Martin)

Bruce Martin is a black-voiced bass-baritone whose immense strength also possesses wonderful finesse. His repertoire encompasses classical and contemporary opera, though he became especially noted for his Wagnerian roles – no-one who saw his Australian Opera performance as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger will ever forget those performances. This two-disc compilation features studio and live recordings made here and in South Africa. Most come from the 1970s and ‘80s, though the longevity of his voice is attested by a fine recording of the Mussorgsky Songs and Dances of Death from 1999. The repertoire here is huge, ranging from Mozart to Schubert, Verdi to Wagner, and to the further American shores of Lerner and Loewe’s ‘They Call the Wind Maria’, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and even the Paul Anka rewriting of Jacques Revaux’s ‘My Way’. This is overdue recognition of a special and often difficult career, which seemed crammed with triumphs and disappointments. Long-time Australian Opera friend and patron Martin Dickson is right when he points to Martin’s fastidious attention to musical detail. What he doesn’t mention is how, despite the study, there seems an almost insolent ease in the way he throws out a well-nigh perfect version…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BERLIOZ L’enfance du Christ; Romeo & Juliet (Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Cluytens; Choeurs René Duclos; de los Angeles; Gedda Chicago Symphony/Giulini)

Warm, intimate, gentle and yet absorbing, it belies Berlioz’s reputation for overstatement and is known chiefly for the ‘Shepherds’ Farewell’. This recording, almost half a century old, is just perfect with its all-French cast, except obviously for de los Angeles (in radiant voice anyway), and the then standard French-sounding orchestra with its slightly tart woodwind adding the last touch of Gallic authenticity, overlaid with the master touch of Cluytens. The characters in this tableau vivant are much more three-dimensional than those in most oratorios and genuinely interact to create a genuine snapshot of life at the time of Christ’s birth. The Romeo and Juliet excerpts are another story. It’s one of a handful of recordings made by Giulini in the mid-1970s for EMI in Chicago when he seemed a civilising influence able to tame this orchestral beast after the occasional brutality of Decca’s Solti. Giulini brings insights into the extended slow pieces such as ‘Romeo Alone’ and maintains the note-to-note tension without any micro-managing, while the faster, more extrovert numbers radiate a visceral brashness amid the wonderful virtuosity quite appropriately. The Queen Mab scherzo is a model of truly knife-edge ensemble. 

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2; Valses Nobles et Sentimentales; La Valse; Ma Mère L’Oye – Suite (Rotterdam PO/Nézet-Séguin)

Of the abridged versions of the full work, the second of the two Daphnis and Chloé suites is the most popular. The music rises mellifluously with the sun and eventually climaxes in its famous 5/4 beat bacchanal. French-Canadian conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, is quite at home here, coaxing lush and exciting playing from Holland’s second orchestra. The great, arching violin melody in the opening pages of the score has rarely sounded so serenely grand. Ravel’s tribute to the more dissolute side of the waltz is on show in Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and La Valse. We easily forget that when the waltz was new, it was regarded as a decadent development. In La Valse, Ravel has made sure we don’t forget it. The work almost deconstructs the waltz. For me the finest piece on the disc is in the Mother Goose Suite. A ballet score touching on the remembrances of childhood. If ever there was music written to lift one’s spirits skyward, this is it. The progress from the hushed and softly imagined Pavane, the joyous brilliance of ‘Petit Poucet’ and finally the radiant apotheosis of ‘The Magic Garden’, is almost without peer in this style of imaginary composition. Although the…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TCHAIKOVSKY Variations on a rococo theme PROKOFIEV Sinfonia concertante cello: (Gautier Capuçon; Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre/Gergiev)

It’s unlikely that even with the powerful and eloquent advocacy of Gautier Capuçon (who claims to have loved the work since he was a child – some people must have strange childhoods) Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante will ever supplant either the Dvorák or Elgar concertos in the concert hall. This is a pity as the work certainly deserves more acknowledgement than it has ever received. Sure, it has the skittish wit, brittle elegance and lyrical warmth of the composer at his best but I’m tempted to think he just poured too much material into it. Composed for Rostropovich, it first appeared as the composer’s ‘Cello Concerto No 2’ in 1952 but was then renamed with its current title. The Concertante is misleading, as the cello’s part is as demanding as that in any conventional concerto, with what the excellent sleeve noted refers to as “bitingly confrontational exchanges with the orchestra”. For me, the most bizarre section occurred in the last movement where we hear parodies of Mahler, Rossini and Britten. Gautier’s performance is a tour de force. His exquisitely nuanced Rococo Variations take this work to a new level with the Third Variation assuming a gorgeous balletic quality. 

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: GOLIJOV La Pasión Segun San Marcos (Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, Orquesta La Pasion and Members of the Simon Boliva Youth Orchestra of Venezuela/Guinand)

This is a two-disc CD presentation of a musical setting of the St Mark’s Passion, a text which exists in hundreds of musical settings, with Bach’s at the pinnacle. There’s also a DVD of a performance in Holland in 2008. This modern work – a sort of world-music/classical fusion — comes from composer Osvaldo Golijov, who was born in Argentina from Eastern European Jewish parents, and who has lived in Argentina, Israel and the USA. Expression of a common humanity rather than one strict religious philosophy seems to be key to the work. It pulsates with South American rhythms, but at the same time it sounds as if it would be equally at home in Africa, or New Guinea or anywhere. As you listen, Golijov’s influences seem many, but referential rather than direct. There are allusions to Orff, and even Britten, and Theodorakis too. It’s a fecund work, which has sprung from rich soil. The orchestra is very South American in its basis of percussion and brass. The choral singing is very beautiful, and the small handful of soloists acquit themselves very well, particularly the fine soprano Jessica Rivera. The DVD of the concert performance is worth viewing once to set…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; Le Carnival Romain (Anima Eterna Brugge/Van Immerseel)

And so it is with the new recording of Berlioz’s most famous composition. This is a valuable addition to the catalogue, for you are unlikely to have ever heard it played before in this fashion. The work has lent itself generously over the last 150 years to huge orchestras and ambitious conducting. Not any more, and a greater contrast with our comfort zone experiences could not be imagined. Much of it is a great improvement. The steely strings, the drier woodwinds, the edgier brass playing, contribute to a more effective nightmare than we usually get. This approach de-romanticises the score very effectively. Similar treatment for Mahler’s 4th Symphony with Roger Norrington and the Stuttgart orchestra, robbed the work of feeling. Curiously, this does not apply to this work, couched as it is in cold dreams and night sweats. However, it must be said that there are times, primarily towards the end of the last two sections, where a more voluptuous orchestral sound is needed, as the performance rattles a bit at the end of those sections. This is more of a problem with the overture, Roman Carnival. Immerseel clearly has no idea what makes the piece work and it goes…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SHOSTAKOVICH Piano Trios Nos. 1, 2 SCHNITTKE Piano Trio; Kempf Trio

Shostakovich’s Trio Op. 8 predates his first symphony and was begun when the composer was 16. It followed emotional crises caused by the First World War, his struggle with tuberculosis, the death of his father and his love for the daughter of a Moscow professor. It is not surprising that the work is a kaleidoscope of emotions ranging from ecstasy to despair. The Trio Op. 67 dates from the worst period of the Second World War (1944) and reflects the deprivations and horrors suffered by the Soviet people at that time. It is said that at the first performance, by Shostakovich and members of the Beethoven Quartet, members of the audience were moved to tears and left stunned at its conclusion. Further performances were banned probably because the authorities recognised that the Jewish theme in the finale was a reference to the persecution of Jews taking place throughout Europe. The Schnittke Trio (1991) is an arrangement made after the composer had recovered from a serious stroke, of his string Trio of 1985. It is written very much in the style of Shostakovich’s music but is, if anything, even grimmer and more pessimistic than that latter’s 0p. 67. It consists of…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Bach Album (oboe and oboe d’amore: Diana Doherty; Ironwood)

Of the works on this disc, BWV 1053R is also known as Harpsichord Concerto No. 2 and BWV 1055R as Harpsichord Concerto No. 4; both will be familiar to many listeners. The oboe Concerto BWV1059R has been reconstructed from music in Bach’s Cantatas which, scholars believe, was also re-worked by Bach in this concerto. Similarly, the Oboe Sonata here recorded (BWV1030b) may be the original version of a work later known as the Flute Sonata in B minor (BWV2060). None of these works seems to me to be among Bach’s greatest works except for the slow movement of BWV1059R and possibly the Concerto BWV1055. Also included are sinfonias with oboe solos from two of Bach’s Cantatas. All of them are excellently played by Diana Doherty, who has used different instruments as well as varying her reeds to achieve a better Baroque effect. She is accompanied by the small instrumental ensemble known as Ironwood using modern instruments with gut strings. The string parts are played by single instruments instead of a string group, thus achieving greater transparency. 

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Piazzolla and Beyond (trumpet: David Gordon, violin: Adam Summerhayes; London Concertante)

That augurs badly for this disc, which presents new settings of six works by Argentina’s tango-master Astor Piazzolla, alongside four original compositions inspired by Piazzolla by pianist David Gordon and violinist Adam Summerhayes. Piazzolla, an innovative composer and musician who created cutting-edge music inspired by the tango tradition, breathed fresh life into what had become a rather tired musical genre. But although an inspired creator, he set strict limits on his musical expression. He used a bandoneon (an instrument similar to a concertina) as his main instrument. He eschewed strings and percussion, and even disliked jazz-style improvisation. Yet this album presents a string orchestra with piano, and positively glistens with percussive effects from the stringed instruments as well as great expressive jazz riffs. It should be a universe away from Piazzolla’s world. Yet it is not. In their very free interpretations of Piazzolla’s works, and in their own compositions, Gordon and Summerhayes honour the composer by giving us some wildly expressive and continually exciting music which is as thrilling as the tango itself. As an act of homage, this works. As an explosion of raw musical passion, it works even better.