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…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Tragediennes 2: Various arias (soprano: Veronique Gens; Les Talens Lyriques/Rousset)

The present disc contains works by French composers from Rameau to Berlioz, together with arias by non-French composers who set French texts such as Sacchini (1734-1786), Piccinni (1720-1800), the Basque Arriaga, who died at 20 in 1826, and more familiar non-French composers such as Cherubini and Gluck. The arias are all highly dramatic. This disc is most recommendable. Arias by the lesser known composers, such as Sacchini and Piccinni, are just as interesting as those of the better known Gluck and Rameau. The Cherubini aria is especially fascinating for its bassoon solo and it is very gratifying to have a composition by Arriaga who seems to have been a genuine genius. Dying so young, he had hardly the time to write an opera and is represented by a cantata written when he was just 17. Veronique Gens’s performance of this music is very accomplished and satisfying. She has a voice of excellent quality and a sound technique. Her French is a joy and her combination of crisp declamation and pure legato is just what this type of music needs. Interspersed throughout the recital are orchestral excerpts from the operas from which the arias are drawn. If we must have period…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: DVORAK Violin Concerto (violin: Jack Liebeck; Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Walker)

The Dvorak Violin Concerto has never enjoyed first rank status amongst the Romantic violin concertos, although it is blessed with an abundance of soaring melodies and a truly catchy last movement. The problem stems from the dedicatee, the violinist Joseph Joachim who was uncomfortable with the work’s atypical form. He insisted on a number of changes, yet even after four years of painstaking revisions, he declined to perform it, leaving the premiere to the Czech violinist Frantisek Ondricek. Even more neglected is the Violin Sonata in F major Op. 57, a work I have wondered about but have never heard and which I found tuneful and attractive. Fortunately the final work, the Sonatina in G, is better known, largely due to Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of the slow movement, which was hurriedly sketched on a shirt sleeve during Dvorak’s visit to Minnehaha Falls in Minnesota. Written alongside the New World Symphony and the American String Quartet, it is a modest work intended by Dvorak “for young people and grown-ups too”. The violinist, Jack Liebeck, is a polished fiddler with a real gift for lyrical playing. He has a deep “in the string” sound which is intensely sweet even when he plays…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VILLA-LOBOS Complete Choros, Bachianas Brasileiras & solo guitar music (various artists)

It’s also impossible to do justice to it (the playing of the São Paulo Orchestra is excellent) or the range of its content. Generally, the Choros, originally street music or serenades for any particular combination of instruments but expanded by Villa-Lobos sometimes to include voices, fare better in inverse proportion to their length and scoring, The shorter ones for a smaller combination of instruments are charming and inventive, although there’s not much “jungle” music. The longest, No. 11, composed for Artur Rubinstein of all people, seems, at more than an hour, interminable, and like many of the other longer pieces, sounds like the score to a third-rate film where Yma Sumac is dragged to a volcano as a human sacrifice, amid a few eight octave leaps. The Bachianas Brasileiras generally fare better. No. 5 for soprano and cellos and the toccata from No 2 The Little Train of the Caipira are the only pieces of this vast oeuvre at all known. The Bachianas really do reveal a high level of inspiration throughout and I most enjoyed the samba/bossa nova touches. 

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHINA CONNECTION Various composers (violinists: Zen Hu, Ning Feng)

Zen Hu writes of discovering the similarities between the folk music of East and West, and with this project in mind she did not have to go far to find Ning Feng, who hails from the same part of China. Both live up to their impressive credentials, with strong performances of close and constant interplay. There are enough structural and tonal differences to distinguish between the compositions, without spoiling the concept of them being connected. The three European composers all represent a single generation, earlier than the Chinese, so the connection of the title crosses boundaries of time as well as music and geography. There is a sameness about the texture of the music, though, that gives neither instrument a chance to take off in any sustained flight of individual fancy. The missing ingredient is a touch of solo contemplation, which European composers have been so good at. This is a commendable CD, expanding the scope of what is familiar in violin music, but in the end one or two additional contrasting works might have thrown the sense of connection into sharper focus. 

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Midsummer Night: Various arias (soprano: Kate Royal; Crouch End Festival Chorus; Orchestra of the English National Opera/Gardner)

I heard Kate Royal at the Schubertiade concerts in Austria this year and was very impressed with her singing of Lieder by Schumann and Brahms. Here, she attempts a completely different program of arias from the 20th century. The most noticeable feature of the disc is the beautiful sound that emerges at all times. Kate Royal’s voice is exquisite and Edward Gardner draws ravishing sounds from his orchestra. I enjoyed most the arias by Stravinsky (The Nightingale), Carlisle Floyd (Susannah), Dvorak (Rusalka), Britten (Paul Bunyan), Lehar (The Merry Widow) and Korngold (The Dead City), although in the last named Royal does not efface memories of the great singers who have sung this in the past. Elsewhere, the arias are testimony to the inability experienced by many 20th century composers in writing attractive vocal music. For example, the aria from Britten’s The Turn of the Screw begins with a superbly atmospheric orchestral introduction, but the vocal part is not only uninteresting in itself, it also fails to convey the impact of the words and the mood of the dramatic situation.  The same might be said of the extracts from the operas of Bernard Herrmann, Samuel Barber, William Walton and even Britten’s much-vaunted Peter Grimes;…

January 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RAVEL Tzigane: Music for Violin, Cello and Piano (violin: Kristian Winther, cello: Michelle Wood, piano: Anthony Romaniuk)

I find this pared-back version by far the more powerful. The Hungarian Gypsy flavouring accentuates the drama of the work, like a fiery shot of grappa in espresso. Violinist Kristian Winther is the showcased artist here, with Anthony Romaniuk and Michelle Wood providing sympathetic accompaniment. Kristian, originally from Canberra, is only 25. This recording suggests he is poised on the edge of a great career. His playing is sensitive when called for, but is distinguished in the main by a full-blooded vigour and impetuousness which is never less than totally exciting. The four works heard here – Tzigane, Sonata for Violin and Piano Number 2, Piece in the Form of a Habanera and the Sonata for Violin and Cello – span from 1907 to 1922 and include some of the most aggressive and dynamic of Ravel’s chamber writing – what he called his ‘motor’ or ‘mechanised’ style. That sounds heartless – but nothing Ravel wrote could be termed that. There’s too much soul incorporated in his driving rhythms. The acoustics on this SACD are as exceptional as anything Melba has produced, which means close to recorded perfection. This is a hybrid-disc, which means that if your player cannot reproduce SACD,…