5 June, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Puccini: Turandot DVD (Opera Australia)

Graeme Murphy’s handsome production of Puccini’s grandest opera was first recorded back 
in 1991, so why have Opera Australia chosen to revisit it? First of all, it’s an opportunity for a technological upgrade, and in this respect the DVD is a singular success. Picture quality is crystal clear, with clever use of overlays to enhance the visuals. The sound, too, is very good, every detail of Andrea Licata’s highly effective, dramatic reading of the score brought vividly to life. First honours go to American soprano Susan Foster in the title role, commanding the stage with ringing tone, immaculate diction and an insightful dramatic identification with the character. It’s a wild performance, and some might find the vibrato a trifle wayward, but she easily sails over the chorus and her emotional transformation is riveting. The other star of the show is the Australian Opera chorus who, despite Murphy’s production occasionally veering into Kismet territory, sing with unflagging power and commitment. Unfortunately, Rosario La Spina proves a fly in the ointment. His foursquare musical approach and unimaginative use of text lacks finesse and, although the top notes are all there, his hollow tone is dull. Add to this some dubious Italian vowels…

5 June, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Alleluia (Julia Lezhneva)

There are two ways of looking at the 18th-century solo motet. One is as a vehicle for expression of religious thought (and a cheap means to fill out your service if you were on a budget). The other is a way of slipping a virtuoso operatic showpiece or two into a sacred service – indeed, if you were Handel, Vivaldi or Porpora, this form of recycling was common 
practice. For her solo Decca
 debut recording, the Russian
 coloratura Julia Lezhneva has
 opted to explore this fruitful
 musical genre with motets 
from four of the most distinctive
 composers of the Baroque and 
Classical periods. Neatly, each motet 
ends with an Alleluia movement, giving the disc its title. Still only 23, Lezhneva is possessed of an exceptionally pure instrument. The danger with a “clean” voice like hers is the risk of
 a certain sameness over the course of an hour’s solo program, but do not despair:
 this young soprano has two tricks up her sleeve. Recognising the operatic dimension within these works, she hurls herself into the opening of Vivaldi’s In Furore with more bite even than Sandrine Piau on the rival Naïve recording (which is saying something!). Her technique is rock…

5 June, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Mussorgsky: Pictures from an Exhibition (Ott)

I was impressed with the whimsicality Alice Sara Ott displayed in early Beethoven on a disc I reviewed last year, so I was surprised by her ponderous approach to Pictures from an Exhibition. Several of Mussorgsky’s impressions of his artist friend Hartmann’s work have a scherzando quality: the children playing at the Tuileries garden, the bustling market place at Limoges, and of course the ballet of the unhatched chicks. Ott’s pianism is meticulous and well prepared however some careful tempos and overemphatic dynamics rob her performance of character. She stretches out The Great Gate at Kiev considerably and, generally speaking, she fails to treat these pictures with enough visual imagination. As this is a live performance from the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg it is quite possible that Ott needed to project and underline the music more than she would in a recording studio. Even so, it’s bad luck for her that a performance by Stephen Osbourne recently appeared on Hyperion that supplies some of the telling detail and subtlety that Ott misses, and I would recommend his in preference to this one. The unusual coupling of Schubert’s Piano Sonata Op 53 is more successful. Here Ott’s poise is an…

5 June, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Mendelssohn: Violin & Piano Concerto, Octet (ACO, Tognetti)

Perennially young at heart, the ACO has 
just the right touch with these two works written while Mendelssohn was in his teenage years. While the latter of these works, the Octet is well known, the Concerto in D Minor for Violin, Piano and Strings was written when the composer was just fourteen and deserves a wider audience. Exhibiting the influence of his onetime teacher Johann Nepomuk Hummel, the concerto is full of the flashy and, at times, dreamy music that precocious
 child prodigies such as the 
composer would have enjoyed playing. Mendelssohn wrote the piece to play with his older friend and violin teacher, Eduard Ritz. Russian pianist Polina Leschenko, who toured the work with the ACO last year, is a perfect match for Tognetti. Together they bring all the necessary effervescence and vitality 
to the score with its moments of devil-may- care gypsy music, gentle melodic filigree and dramatic technical display. In all this they are splendidly supported by the ACO which (once again) proves an ideal accompanist. Written just two years after the enjoyable, if somewhat derivative, Concerto, the astonishingly mature and original Octet was a gift to Ritz on his 23rd birthday. (Lucky man!) In addition to…

4 June, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Sibelius: Symphonies 1 & 4 (Vänska)

Osmo Vänskä’s “trim, taut and terrific” approach to Sibelius survives into his second cycle where the First Symphony, at just 34 minutes, almost manages to efface completely the traditional Tchaikovskian breadth. Fortunately, we still hear plenty of harp throughout, especially in my favourite passage, the exquisitely delicate section of the slow movement where the woodwinds and triangle are quite magic. If symphonies were people, Sibelius’s Fourth would be the ultimate anti-hero. Here, tempi
 are much more conventional
 and Vänskä moulds the music superbly in the opening movement where the fusion of bleakness and inscrutability as they materialise out of Stygian gloom is strangely beautiful and moving. The second- movement Scherzo peters out in a strange, almost sinister, ellipsis, but it is in the slow movement – the emotional core of the work – where the particles simply stop vibrating as the temperature reaches absolute zero and Vänskä plumbs the depths with the best of them. In the final movement Sibelius, seemingly perversely, introduces glockenspiel and tubular bells, of all instruments. Most conductors opt for one or the other. (In one recording, Ormandy uses both,
 but not together.) Vänskä, wisely I think, uses the former, as tubular bells always sound to…

1 June, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Forbidden Moments (Nicola Milan)

It seems apt to be listening to jazz singer-songwriter Nicola Milan at this time of year. As the mercury drops, her second studio album Forbidden Moments begs to be enjoyed on a lazy Sunday afternoon, glass of red in hand. Produced with a $9,765 grant awarded by Arts WA and the Department of Culture, these ten original pieces move between bluesy swing, Latin, and folk to convey the emotional versatility and complexities of a talented and promising songstress. A WAAPA graduate and award winning songwriter, Milan’s vocals are warm, effortless and chocolaty, and occasionally spiked with a hint of something stronger. The Scent of Her Perfume is pure drama. Sensual and passionate, Milan’s voice flirts with violinist Ashley Arbuckle’s sexy melodic passages in this bold tango. Arbuckle, former co-leader of the London Symphony Orchestra is joined by a series of distinguished jazz musicians including double bassist Pete Jeavons, guitarist Rick Webster and drummer Michael Perkins. Together they form a tight ensemble and Milan provides ample opportunities for each performer to shine. Their experience shows. The final track on the album, Latin inspired The Lonely Flute, brilliantly showcases flautist and saxophonist Michael Collinson, and pianist and accordionist Ben Clarke – a…

30 May, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Die Walkure (Gergiev)

Anyone passionate about Wagner’s Ring Cycle knows that every generation has its own prospective dream team. Cruel twists of fate, aging and contracts have frequently meant that key players never came together on one recording and/or in good voice. Given the paucity of new opera recordings around nowadays, it seems even more remarkable, therefore, that our current generation’s dream team should have coincided on this new Die Walküre from Mariinsky Opera. Valery Gergiev is solid in Wagner – his 2010 Parsifal proved that he has an ear for Wagner’s orchestral sonorities and is
able to sensitively support a vocal line. Given his reputation for being driven, what is surprising here is his breadth of pacing throughout. What he occasionally lacks in climactic payoffs he makes up for with revelatory touches of instrumental colour and meaningfully shaped instrumental phrases. It’s generally very well recorded too, on SACD, with plenty of air around the sound and singers well caught. His cast, as mentioned, is exemplary. Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Kampe are the Wälsung twins, drawing you inexorably into the drama from the word go. Vocally Kaufmann is unmatched on record, a heroically dark tenor with ringing top notes. Kampe gives him a run…

30 May, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Turina: Danzas Fantásticas, Ritmos, Songs (Mouritz)

Joaquin Turina took on the advice as well as the example of his older compatriots Albeníz and Falla, and wrote works influenced by the fiery gypsy music of Andalusia. His output consists mainly of piano music, songs, chamber music and a handful of dazzling orchestral works which show him to be second only to Ravel in orchestral wizardry. In all the music on this well-filled disc you will hear a style of Impressionism that is not cool and misty but ablaze with heat and light. The BBC Philharmonic relish Turina’s textures under Mena’s idiomatic direction, and typically rich Chandos sound is everything one could wish. This is well worth collecting alongside Mena’s previous discs of music by Falla and Montsalvatge. If I have a quibble, perhaps a degree of earthiness is missing in these lush performances. In the Danzas Fantásticas some of Mena’s predecessors point more clearly to the gypsy origins. Try the
old Ansermet/Suisse Romande recording on Eloquence to hear what I mean. Clara Mouritz’s vibrant mezzo- soprano voice is perfect for the heartfelt Saeta, but I feel the five Poema en forma de canciones lie too high for her. A true soprano is needed, the likes of Los Angeles,…

30 May, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Solo Guitarra (José Luis Montón)

Just as flamenco guitarists Paco Peña and Paco di Lucía have stretched the boundaries of what constitutes flamenco, so too does Barcelona-born José Luis Montón draw on “new characters in the alphabet of flamenco” in his inspired, impassioned creations, while introducing a few of his own. As Montón writes in his brief booklet note: “In this music I have tried to translate all the sincerity and love of art that I appreciate so much when I encounter it.” Thus most of the pieces start
from a traditional base – bulería, tango, soleá, seguirilla and so forth – before pushing off from the shore in search of new horizons. Works such as the opening Rota (farruca) and the percussive Al oído (cantiñas) combine sweetly ornamented melodies with flurries of punteado and machine-gun bursts of rasgueado, while rhythms and harmonies take unexpected twists and turns. One of the biggest, and most enjoyable, of those twists is Montón’s beautiful, flamenco- inflected arrangement of JS Bach’s Air from the Orchestral Suite No 3 in D. Here, as in many other pieces on this recording, the main melody sneaks up on you amid a fresh, lyrical introduction. Other highlights include the intense Altolaguirre (tango), the exciting…

30 May, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Weber: Violin Sonatas, Piano Quartet (Faust, Melnikov)

Not known as a musical iconoclast, poor old Weber, it seems, had a hard time getting these works accepted, if we are to believe the reaction of his publishers. The Piano Quartet, according to them, exhibited a “wanton confusion in the arrangement of its ideas”, and worse, imitated the “bizarreries” of Beethoven. The Six Violin Sonatas were a commission for a collection of short pieces of moderate difficulty for the domestic market. It’s never easy for a classy musician to “dumb down” and Weber sweated blood over what he described as a “swine of a job”. In the end they were rejected, according to the composer, “on the splendid grounds that they’re too good and they ought to be much duller”. Both sets were eventually taken on by a more enlightened publisher and here we have a rare opportunity to hear them played by as first rate a set of chamber musicians as you could hope for in this day and age. Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov won awards left right and centre for their complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas a couple of years ago and it’s fair to say they bring an unprecedented grace and sophistication to these Weber sonatas….

30 May, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Elgar, Carter: Cello Concrtos (Weilerstein)

She’s playing the Elgar Cello Concerto with the husband of the woman who made the greatest-ever recording of it; she’s already won a “Genius” award from the MacArthur Foundation, and she’s got Decca hailing her as its first solo cellist signing in more than three decades. Lots of hype to live up to there, and Alisa Weilerstein seems on a hiding-to-nothing when the inevitable comparisons are made with Jacqueline duPré. What
the conspicuously intelligent American has going for her is a prodigious talent that’s been
recognised ever since she made
her concert debut with Cleveland
Orchestra nearly two decades ago.
That, and a commercial point-of-difference
in programming, with the immortal Elgar coupled implausibly with Elliott Carter’s Cello Concerto, and then the bitter pill’s sugar- coating of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei. But Weilerstein is known for her interest
in contemporary music, and Carter’s Cello Concerto, filled with slap-pizzicato and spiky orchestral explosions, is one of the few works by the American composer’s-composer that has crossed over successfully into the popular concert hall. And strange as it may sound given the beloved warhorse company that it keeps, this boots-and-all recording of it is the highlight of an impressive CD which leaves the brain stimulated but the emotions strangely unengaged. In…

23 May, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Verdi: Complete Works

Forget the Complete Wagner with its paltry 43 CDs – this monolith, weighing in at a gargantuan 75 discs, beats all comers this year – that is if you can manage to struggle home with it from the shop! From 1840 to 1860, Giuseppe Verdi produced a new opera nearly every year. A slowpoke compared with some of his contemporaries (the likes of Donizetti and Pacini could
whack out three or four operas
a year) but considering that
Verdi’s output included works
like Nabucco, Macbeth, Rigoletto,
La Traviata, Il Trovatore and Un
Ballo In Maschera, that’s pretty good
going by anyone’s standards. He slowed down over the following 30 years, with only five more works seeing the light of day – but what masterworks they were! Decca and Deutsche Grammophon have made so many recordings over the years that it comes as no surprise that Universal Music are able to curate a “complete works” of the depth of quality that we have here. The classic sets include Kleiber’s La Traviata with Cotrubas and Domingo, Abbado’s Macbeth, Giulini’s Rigoletto and Il Trovatore, Domingo’s finest Otello and Karajan’s earlier Aida. We also get both versions of La Forza del Destino (St Petersburg and Milan) and both French and Italian…

23 May, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Hildegard: Vespers for St Hildegard (Sinfonye)

Academic and composer Stevie Wishart has edited and recorded the complete works of the recently beatified 12th-century mystic and composer Abbess Hildegard of Bingen over the last 20 years. She collaborates here with electronica producer Guy Sigsworth on a “creative re-imagining of a choral evensong”. Released with an eye on the crossover/new age audience, the disc may make purists recoil in horror but Wishart has never been afraid to allow some creative license in her interpretation of the melismatic neumes. Most of the content of this album features unadorned monodic chant performed by the six pure but characterful voices of Sinfonye, interspersed with Wishart’s tasteful reworkings “alio modo” (another way). One of Wishart’s original compositions, a particularly impressive polyphonic setting of the Magnificat, turns out to be the highlight of the disc, showing off the expressive range of the ensemble to better effect than the restrained chanting nun material surrounding it – indeed, I wished for more of this sort of polyphonic elaboration throughout. Some of the instrumental contributions come perilously close to 1970s folk/rock doodlings. And beware of two tracks where the producer has been allowed his head; Azeruz and ZuuenZ – generic ambient electronic soundscapes more appropriate for…