March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SHOSTAKOVICH Symphonies No 2 October, No 11 1905 (Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus/Gergiev)

The 2nd and 11th are among Shostakovich’s least known symphonies. Chronologically they bookend Stalin’s reign in Soviet Russia, a period of great personal anxiety for the composer, which paradoxically produced his symphonic masterpieces (the 5th, 6th, 8th and 10th symphonies). Shostakovich was only 21 when he composed the 2nd, a relatively short work for chorus and orchestra. In its harmony, structure and technique it is pure 1920s avant-garde, but strip away the wailing sirens and shouting chorus effects and you’ll find a Soviet pot-boiler. There is a visceral immediacy to the work’s depiction of the uprising of 1917, but those qualities of ironic jokiness and despair that characterise his best music are entirely absent. By contrast, the 11th, which deals with the aborted revolution of 1905, is a vast orchestral canvas. Quoting revolutionary songs of the period, the work is drawn out in the manner of a Russian novel. Shostakovich’s audience knew these themes – the songs held deep significance for them – but that is not the case with today’s listeners. The composer’s expert use of the orchestra does not negate recurring episodes of stasis or bombast. It is best to approach this symphony as a monumental and dramatic…

March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL Arias: Ombra Cara (countertenor: Bejun Mehta; Freiburg Baroque/Jacobs)

Countertenor Bejun Mehta enters the increasingly crowded field of Handel recitals and triumphs with this engaging and exquisitely sung selection of arias and duets, many of them composed for the great castrato Senesino.  Dark yet delicate in timbre, Mehta’s voice defies the common criticisms (or myths) surrounding the countertenor voice, displaying not only spectacular agility but a wealth of colour, superb dynamic control, and a steely strength which underpins the sheer loveliness of sound.  But it is Mehta’s vocal acting which lifts this recital to another level. Be it in the exultant coloratura of Sento la gioia, the long, hushed lines of Stille amare or the militant staccati of Fammi combatere, Mehta teams technical brilliance with sensitive expressivity, capturing even the most broadly drawn Baroque emotions with touching sincerity.  Collections of Handel arias are hardly thin on the ground these days – barely a month seems to pass without a few new additions to the discography – but Mehta’s rare combination of virtuosity and expressive acuity makes this recital one of the finest such releases in recent years.

March 22, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RODRIGO • GOSS • ALBENIZ Concierto de Aranjuez; Works for Guitar (guitar: Xuefei Yang; Orquestre Simfonica de Barcelona/Oue)

This performance of Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez is probably very different from what the composer ever envisaged or heard. He is on record as saying the guitar does not have great power. Here, through the combination of close-miking and committed performance, the guitar has power aplenty, but this is not just a display of brawn. In fact, under Xuefei Yang’s command, the lyrical second movement of the concerto has rarely sounded so intensely emotional and expressive. It is a phenomenal performance, and Yang’s sensitivity is matched by the playing of the Orquestre Simfonica and a warm, responsive recording timbre. Here too is a brand-new concerto for guitar and orchestra, commissioned by Yang. It is by Stephen Goss, entitled The Albeniz Concerto and drawn from Albeniz’s piano works. It is, on first hearing, a very appealing work, which will probably become a concert-hall staple for this fine Chinese guitarist. Yang herself is no slouch at such arrangements, and the recital includes her own very well executed transcriptions for solo guitar of several Albeniz piano works. Of interest to Australian listeners will be that the guitar she has chosen for the two concertos is a beautifully sonorous instrument made by Greg Smallman and…

March 21, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUMANN Scenes from Childhood; Papillons; Fantasie Op 17; Novelette (piano: Stephanie McCallum)

Australian pianist Stephanie McCallum is renowned for tackling the 19th-century virtuoso repertoire. Schumann presents an entirely different degree of difficulty. Though by no means easy to play, his music also demands a high level of empathy. His three-movement Fantasie exemplifies the composer’s stormy marriage of form and content. In my opinion, the emotional aspect is already written into the notes: Schumann, like Chopin, does not benefit from extra rubato or exaggerated dynamics. Judging from this recording, McCallum feels the same way. Her gradations of tone colour are subtly judged, and discreet pauses in the music’s progress are never underlined. Nothing is over-pointed. This is true throughout the whole recital. No thundering out the Novelette’s opening deluge of notes for her! In the Scenes from Childhood suite’s best known movement, Traumerei, she plays the famous theme gently but still with youthful energy. The suite ends with a piece entitled The Poet Speaks, in which Schumann recollects his childhood from a mature vantage point. McCallum effectively deepens her tone in response. In the early suite, Papillons, McCallum’s textural clarity is a great asset. Recommended.

March 21, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VERDI Messa da Requiem (Soloists; Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Muti)

Giuseppe Verdi was not the most devout composer of his time, but in Italy he was the most popular. When Rossini died, Verdi set about organising a requiem in the older master’s honour. That project foundered, and Verdi’s Libera me found its way into his full Requiem, written in 1873 in memory of Alessandro Manzoni. From the start, Verdi’s Requiem was more about public than private grief. It is operatic in style and scope – indeed, three of the original soloists sang the leads in the European premiere of Aida. Some conductors try to emphasise the spiritual side of the work, but Verdi’s Requiem is a matter of blood and guts as much as life and death. The chorus’s doomed Requiem aeternam is suffused with the portent of high tragedy. The opening of the Dies irae, with its drum whacks and shattering minor chords, is as tempestuous as Otello’s shipwreck, while the mezzo’s Liber scriptus is direr than any curse hurled out by a gypsy fortune-teller. Muti, an opera conductor par excellence, understands this, and the Chicago Orchestra have a reputation for piling on the decibels when required. The soloists are strong, only lacking an Italianate warmth (apart from Borodina)….

March 21, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: IKON II: Russian Choral Music (Holst Singers/Layton)

This release focuses on Russian composers from the early 20th-century – including some émigré composers – who were linked through the famous pre-Revolutionary Moscow Synodal School of church singing. The comprehensive notes give an excellent background to the composers, who included Chesnokov, Gretchaninov and Viktor Kalinnikov. Though their styles diverge, the extraordinary sonority of the lusciously-voiced choral writing is a common point, as is the deep bass singing – as resonant as cathedral bells. To give a taste of the musical lineage of these composers, some earlier works are represented by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. An extract from Rachmaninov’s famous Liturgy shows how deeply that late-Romantic composer was affected by this tradition. Past and present are inextricably linked in this tradition, which draws from Gregorian chant, and which can be heard reflected too in the 20th-century revolutionary writings of Prokofiev, especially for his soundtracks of the movies of Sergei Eisenstein. This is a fascinating assemblage of mostly short compositions of only two or three minutes apiece, but brimming with a radiant serenity way out of scale with their brevity. These ikons truly gleam with beauty.

March 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: All-in-one music systems

All-in-one music systems have come a long way from the table-top-sized music centre. These days not only do they cram a lot into a very small space, but they’re also on a mission to prove that hi-fi separates are not the only way to get top audio performance. Ever since Denon threw down the challenge with its earliest D-M series components, the heat’s been on in this sector of the market, with challenges from leading Japanese rivals, and companies better-known for full-size hi-fi components joining the party with gusto. Here, we put six of the best through their paces, in order to answer the all-important question: which gives you the biggest sound from the smallest system? ARCAM SOLO MINI  $1200 ★★★★★ Website Arcam has done a particularly good job of extending its Solo sub-brand. Starting with the original Solo model, we’ve now had a movie-playing version, the Solo Movie; an internet-streaming variant, the Solo Neo; and this, the compact version. OK, the Solo Mini is hardly petite by class standards. Compared with the other systems here, it’s a fairly usual 23cm wide and 35cm deep, but Arcam has kept things suitably low-slung – it’s just 9cm tall – and the quality of build…

March 10, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Best of Blu-Ray

LG HB45E $349  ★★★★ Website Power player: a fine effort from LG, but there are holes to be picked with overall performance. The design of this LG 2.1 system is something of a paradox. Taking the two speakers (standing nearly 50cm tall) and the subwoofer (comfortably the largest of the three in this test), this system is not just the bulkiest of those on test here, but, well, pretty darn bulky full stop. We can’t help thinking that this detracts from part of the central appeal of a 2.1 cinema system, and makes the much more petite, PS3-shaped main unit – which, like the PS3, is happy standing vertically or horizontally – something of a busted flush. Still, everything is finished to a high standard and there’s an exhaustive specification to match. A clean and clear interface – which, frankly, puts the other systems to shame – makes it easy to access all the functions: Blu-ray, DVD and CD playback are all present and correct, of course, and you also get an external iPod dock, DLNA media streaming, LG’s Netcast internet-enabled apps, an FM/AM radio tuner and even USB recording, to highlight some key features. In action the LG is something…

February 17, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Internet Radios

MagicBox Nocturne XP2  $230  ★★★★★Website Flat-fronted and with an integrated iPod dock, the Magicbox Nocturne XP2 is a decorative proposition. Touch-sensitive controls add a dash of panache, though they aren’t the last word in ergonomics. Whether playing Internet, DAB or FM radio, the XP2 holds a signal well, and, provided the signal is of a decent quality, sound is smooth and well integrated. Low frequencies are nicely judged, with a degree of presence and body but no suggestion of unruliness. The top of the frequency range is mercifully benign too, and deft integration means the Magicbox sounds unified and coherent. Some may hanker after a little more scale, but the XP2 is much more saint than sinner.   Pure Evoke Flow  $230  ★★★★★Website Two years a five-star product, the Evoke Flow shows no signs of being overhauled any time soon. It’s winningly sized and proportioned, lustrously finished and has bespoke, bright OLED set-up menus where the other three radios here share the same off-the-shelf interface. It does without an iPod dock, but counters with the option of a rechargeable battery.And it gets only more likeable when tuned to any radio station. This compact design isn’t going to shift huge gusts…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Concertos for Piano: Nos. 1, 3 & 4 (piano: John O’Conor; LSO/Delfs)

The great German pianist Wilhelm Kempff was one of the Irish pianist John O’Conor’s teachers. Since 1997, O’Conor has presented Kempff’s ‘Beethoven Interpretation Course’ at the legendary pianist’s villa in Italy. Central to Kempff’s reputation are the five Beethoven piano concertos and so any new recordings by one of his pupils will inevitably face comparison. Sadly this comparison is not flattering. The Concerto No. 1 gets off to the worst possible start; the orchestral introduction is flaccid and O’Conor’s entrance is tentative and uninspiring. Ultimately the entire first movement lacks flair and interpretive sense. (Tellingly it is around three-and-a-half minutes longer than Kempff’s famous 1962 recording.) There is no improvement in the second movement, which lacks passion and sounds mechanical, surprisingly however the third movement is a gem – sparkling, lively and thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately this improvement is short lived though, and O’Conor’s performance of the third Concerto, while marginally more even (the outer movements have some moments of quality) still fails to impress. The Concerto No. 4 places the differences between O’Conor and his famous mentor in sharp relief. While Kempff mixes vigour with control, strength with a delicate touch and an imaginative use of rubato and dynamic variation,…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TULEV Songs (countertenor: Robin Blaze, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tallinn CO/Hillier)

They were written by Estonian composer Toivo Tulev (b. 1958) who is happy to admit to a philosophical mindset open to influences both very ancient, such as the principals of Gregorian chants, and very modern, such as Led Zeppelin. It is a mindset not expecting to come across anything especially bright or cheerful, so the general mood that runs through his songs is an intense one. The modernistic treatment he gives them means that Tulev ends up, not surprisingly, with something that sounds very different from the sacred music he is committed to. In his creative endeavours, it is almost as though Tulev is looking for some inner meaning to the words themselves, which ideally have some special bearing on the values that make up his nonconforming view of the world. Pretty tunes are no part of this. Instead, Tulev writes songs that are challenging to listen to. There is also something compelling about them. They make you feel that, by making the effort to listen, even if you cannot understand the words, Tulev will have succeeded in making a connection with you and communicating some understanding in musical form of the principles that matter in his life. 

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL Oboe Concertos (Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Marriner)

This double CD set, which pulls together recordings made by the inestimable Sir Neville Marriner and ASMF between 1965 and 1981, is loaded with treats. Disc one features Roger Lord’s superb rendition of the Oboe Concertos Nos. 1, 2a and 3, alongside versions of the overtures and ballet music from Alcina and Ariodante – wonderfully played by all the Academy’s musicians. The program ends with Pour les Chasseurs I & II from Il Pastor Fido, which highlights the magnificently energetic and controlled playing of the brass and woodwinds. Disc two is of similar quality with a glittering reading of the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and superb renditions of selections from Bernice, the Overture in D and the Concerto Grosso ‘Alexander’s Feast’. The Academy’s woodwind and horn players star once again in the three Concerti a due cori.  Taking full advantage of the qualities of their modern instruments, they respond delightfully to Handel’s antiphonal writing. Of course, none of this would be possible without conductor Marriner’s brilliant direction. This is music to cheer us through dark times. 

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Australian Composer Series, Volume 3: Works by Williamson, Meale, Brophy, Glanville-Hicks, Dean (Tasmanian SO)

The 15 CDs have been sold individually, in two five-CD box sets, and the highlights on two samplers. In this, the third five-CD box set, we see forgotten masters Malcolm Williamson and Peggy Glanville-Hicks brought together with Richard Meale, Gerard Brophy and Brett Dean. In all cases these recordings are overdue, bursting with works that have long been out of circulation. Their value to libraries, composers and musicians cannot be overestimated.  My personal favourite is the Peggy Glanville-Hicks record. Opening with the ebullient Etruscan Concerto, played with humour and fine feeling by Caroline Almonte, although the orchestral tuttis could be faster and lighter. The late Deborah Riedel appears in the ‘Final Scene’ from Sappho. This exquisite excerpt is even more poignant with Riedel’s voluptuous, creamy voice in fine form in this, one of her last recordings. Tragic Celebration, Glanville-Hicks’s second last major work becomes more elegaic seemingly previewing the end of her creative career. Letters from Morocco, here in a live recording by Gerald English, is also a welcome inclusion. Glanville-Hicks is overdue for a major revival and hopefully this CD will help to build some momentum for her music.  Malcolm Williamson likewise is appallingly underrepresented on CD, and like Glanville-Hicks…