January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Goetz, Wieniawski: Piano Concertos (Hamish Milne)

Hermann Goetz spent most of his life under the shadow of TB, which claimed him just before he turned 36. Judging by his letters, Goetz was as polite and charming as this concerto. Thankfully, the orchestration, so often thick and unoriginal, is refreshingly transparent and the melodies fall gratefully on the ear. If I had to guess the composer, I’d say Max Bruch, although there are inevitable echoes of Schumann and Chopin. The first movement ambles along genially and the second is delightful in a sentimental way. Things liven up slightly in the finale but, come on guys, at 41 minutes this work is only seven minutes shorter than your average Brahms Second Piano Concerto, and look at how much he managed to pack into that! The other work, by Józef Wieniawski, brother of the more famous violin virtuoso and composer Henryk, was actually composed almost a decade earlier than Goetz’s, but seems more modern. I can’t agree with the sleeve note writer that the character of this work represents Sturm und Drang, implying a fusion of tension and drama, and a relentless barrage of bravura playing. I found it only slightly more energetic than its companion. Both works are…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: For Eternity (Celine Byrne, RTE National Symphony Orchestra)

Byrne had her big break in 2007, when she won the Maria Callas Grand Prix, and she’s maintained a busy schedule – if not massive stardom – ever since. Her website’s calendar shows a preponderance of concert peformances in the last three years, with just a scattering of operatic engagements. The repertoire selected for this disc reflects that: Byrne’s chosen arias are of the warhorse species, ideal for a gala if not always for her light, lyric soprano. She sings sweetly in Micaela’s Je dis and Marguerite’s Jewel Song, but sounds shrill and pressurised in heavier fare such as Un bel dì and Vissi d’arte. No surprise that Mimì is the only Puccini heroine currently in her repertoire. Byrne’s enthusiasm for Spanish comes through engagingly, while still lacking the last degree of idiomatic finesse. A lilting rendition of Granados’s La Maja y el Ruiseñor is the most successful of these selections. There’s a sense of the concert performance about Byrne’s delivery, too. Her phrasing and diction are mostly admirable, but her approach seems to focus more on dazzling climaxes than characterisation; her singing is extroverted and personable, but a sameness creeps in, with everything from Rusalka’s Song to the Moon…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Bartók, Ligeti, Kurtag: Quartets (Cuarteto Casals)

This disc features string quartets by Bartók, Ligeti and Kurtag. All three are Hungarian, and while each spent formative years elsewhere it was their relationship to their homeland and its often tragic modern history that so significantly shaped them. The biggest name here is Bartók. His Quartet No 4 is a gutsy, primal work whose angular melodies seem freshly plucked from Hungarian soil. Composed in 1928, it could easily have been written by any number of composers today. Clearly indebted to it is Metamorphoses Nocturnes by Ligeti. This is by the young Ligeti, long before the clocks, clouds and absurdist outbursts took over – yet the later composer is not hard to find. The opening gives things away: ostensibly twelve-tone, its cool overlapping chromatic rising scales gradually warping and spiralling mercilessly out of control. The third work is Kurtag’s aptly named 12 Microludes. Barely a minute long each, these hyper-miniatures are restrained yet astonishingly rich, constantly morphing unexpectedly. The works sound impulsive and fresh in the hands of Cuarteto Casals, whose colour spectrum is unusually wide: at times whisper quiet, other times as gritty as a rock band. A brilliant disc.

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Prokofiev, Ravel: Piano Concertos (Anna Vinnitskaya)

They were more stunned than impressed, dubbing the composer an enfant terrible, a description Prokofiev liked. His music was the height of aggressive modernism in 1913, although the version of the Second Piano Concerto we know today is a rewrite from ten years later, after the original score perished in a fire. Another young Russian virtuoso, Anna Vinnitskaya, takes a considered and personal approach to the work. In the manic cadenza of the first movement she does not essay the sheer torrent of sound produced by others, but emphasises the musical themes instead. Her steely, relentless scherzo is succeeded by a characterful third movement taken at a steady pace. She launches into the finale with speed and accuracy, making the most of the contrasting episodes. Varga, who has accompanied her before, is supportive of every choice. The score’s wit eludes them, notably in the scherzo, but within their constraints they give a detailed, committed performance. The Ravel concerto is not so individual, but equally well played. This high-spirited divertissement with its jazzy flavour suits Vinnitskaya’s crisply articulated touch – which she softens for the dreamy slow movement. Again, orchestral ensemble is spot on, and the sound is terrific. Recommended in…

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SHOSTAKOVICH 24 Preludes and Fugues (piano: Roger Woodward)

Inspired by the Bach playing of the young Tatiana Nikolayeva, the composer wrote his own series of preludes and fugues for her in record time. In 1975 few music lovers knew the work, and it was the young firebrand Roger Woodward who made the first complete recording in the West. That set has now been reissued after 35 years in the RCA vaults. Woodward treats this work as if it were avant-garde – which it was closer to being in 1975. For a start, he plays most of it at dazzling speeds; his performance is 20 minutes shorter than Ashkenazy’s. Woodward’s articulation is crisp and pointed, the result not unlike Glenn Gould’s Bach (and the sound quality is similarly on the dry side). At high speed the C-sharp minor prelude positively glistens, while the A minor prelude and fugue barrel along. The G-sharp minor fugue is undeniably exciting, though it soon turns a trifle clattery, and the lovely A major prelude loses its tranquillity at Woodward’s rushed tempo. The well-known D-flat major prelude becomes a galumphing, mechanistic waltz: echoes of the young, sarcastic Shostakovich of the 1920s, so clearly heard in some other performances, are nowhere in evidence here. The…

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: JOSEF SUK Ripening, Symphony No 1 (BBC Symphony / Belohlavek)

Zráni (Ripening) is one of a number of deeply felt compositions – inspired by the rapid deaths of Suk’s wife and of Dvorák (Suk’s father-in-law) – that could loosely be described as being in the “triumph of the human spirit over tragedy” genre. This kaleidoscopic score demands virtuoso playing and it certainly receives it here. The BBC Symphony seems to have assimilated a genuinely Czech sound into their playing, even though some of the more histrionic sections of this score are heavily reminiscent of Richard Strauss. Its quiet opening is beautiful. Having said that, I think Zráni, at 38 minutes, is just too long, especially with such a rambling structure and virtually no program. With such an eventful score, the inclusion of a brief chorus towards the end seems strangely superfluous! The early E major symphony is another matter altogether. It radiates the same fresh alfresco sonorities as Dvorák’s best symphonic works. The lyrical first movement and the exuberant yet slightly demonic scherzo both contain some lovely themes, and the slow movement has a noble quality. The finale is a slight problem, however. Initially, it trips along with a wonderfully catchy “traveling” tune which would have done Suk’s father- in-law…

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MAHLER Des Knaben Wunderhorn (mezzo: Magdalena Kožená, baritone: Christian Gerhaher; The Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez)

First, I should point out that the set does not include Urlicht (Primeval Light) and there are no duets, but, apart from that, I needn’t have worried: these are finely performed, idiomatic accounts. Certainly, Boulez doesn’t see quite as much humour in the piece as, say, Tennstedt (EMI) and is, predictably, more at home in the darker numbers. But his soloists are both excellent. I’ve never been a fan of Kožená but here she’s charming, without being arch, and displays amazing breath control in the seemingly interminable “yodeling” effects in Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?, which Boulez takes at a dangerously slow tempo. Gerhaher is superb throughout, his lighter baritone exuding plenty of swagger and braggadocio in the martial numbers without the hectoring quality which occasionally obtruded into Fischer-Dieskau’s versions. The final song segues perfectly into the Adagio of the unfinished Tenth Symphony (an interview in the booklet reveals Boulez has no truck with the various “realisations” of the work) and here both conductor and orchestra are at their finest. This version represents both an apocalyptic vision and the anguished beauty, not only of Mahler’s oeuvre, but of all Romantic music in its exquisite death throes. The sound is so…

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PERGOLESI Stabat Mater (soprano: Anna Prohaska, mezzo: Bernada Fink; Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin)

One is the superb Stabat Mater of Pergolesi (1736), rightly regarded by scholars as one of the most glorious creations of the Baroque era. The other is the fact that its composer died just a few days after completing this unique work. He was just 26, and these days his tuberculosis could readily have been contained. Might he have been another Mozart? We will never know. Nevertheless, we should be glad that we have this work, especially when we can hear it in as wonderful a performance as this. The two soloists are excellent, and the outstanding Akademie für Alte Musik plays at the high level we have come to expect. They pull no punches: the soprano conveys, fortissimo, her anguish at “pertransivit gladius” – the metaphorical sword piercing her with grief at the sight of her son’s tragic end. Above all, it’s Pergolesi’s work which shines. The striking thing is that his language is evident – no-one else could have written this piece. It’s at the same time elegant, restrained, lyrical and intensely moving. It’s not Bach, Telemann, Corelli or any other of the great Baroque era composers. If only we could have had more from this brilliant stylist….

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VIVALDI Arie per tenore (tenor: Topi Lehtipuu; I Barocchisti/Fasolis)

Vivaldi arias are increasingly popular fare in this post-Bartoli age, but it’s his pyrotechnics for soprano which have tended to dominate on disc – this may well be the first devoted entirely to the tenor repertoire. He’s a sterling advocate, singing with light, bright timbre and all the requisite agility to do Vivaldi’s virtuosic writing justice. Taken individually, these are lively and engaging pieces, and Lehtipuu’s delivery is expressive, precise and stylistically exemplary. But the album runs to 23 tracks, and en masse, this succession of showpieces verges on overdose – or at least risks becoming too much of a good thing. On the strength of this selection, Vivaldi’s tenor arias seem to lack the variety of those for the female voice, and while Lehtipuu’s singing has its elegant appeal, it’s not quite distinctive or drop-dead gorgeous enough to compensate for the relentlessness of the repertoire. Diego Fasolis and period band I Barocchisti inject their share of colour, their vibrant playing offering energetic support and shining in the instrumental numbers which punctuate the program. Hardened Vivaldi addicts may naturally take the above reservations with a grain of salt: those who have been eagerly devouring Naïve’s series will find plenty here…

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RAVEL The Piano Concertos, Miroirs (piano: Pierre-Laurent Aimard; Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez)

Aimard and Boulez give a strong account of the first, more forceful than the norm, and the pianist’s technique is astonishing. I have never heard the cadenza sound more like two hands than in this performance. Their G major concerto is less successful. Boulez is on record as disliking the work, finding it “dated” because of the influence of 1920s jazz. To today’s audience the mild syncopation and “blue” harmonies are nothing more than an exotic colour, no more dated than the ländler flavour in Mahler or the folksong influence in Vaughan Williams. In any case, these two great musicians miss the point of the piece. There is no fun to be had in the first movement and the third movement is pedestrian. The wistful slow movement fares better, but the temperature remains cool with more mind than heart involved. Sound is excellent, although the live recording reveals an imperfection of ensemble once or twice – unheard of in a Boulez performance! Aimard plays the solo suite Miroirs with precision and brilliance, but again aims to dig beneath the surface when it is the impressionistic surface that matters most. Boulez recorded the Ravel concertos in 1999 with Krystian Zimerman, whose…

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RAVEL – The Piano Concertos/Miroirs

Aimard and Boulez give a strong account of the first, more forceful than the norm, and the pianist’s technique is astonishing. I have never heard the cadenza sound more like two hands than in this performance. Their G major concerto is less successful. Boulez is on record as disliking the work, finding it “dated” because of the influence of 1920s jazz. To today’s audience the mild syncopation and “blue” harmonies are nothing more than an exotic colour, no more dated than the ländler flavour in Mahler or the folksong influence in Vaughan Williams. In any case, these two great musicians miss the point of the piece. There is no fun to be had in the first movement and the third movement is pedestrian. The wistful slow movement fares better, but the temperature remains cool with more mind than heart involved. Sound is excellent, although the live recording reveals an imperfection of ensemble once or twice – unheard of in a Boulez performance! Aimard plays the solo suite Miroirs with precision and brilliance, but again aims to dig beneath the surface when it is the impressionistic surface that matters most. Boulez recorded the Ravel concertos in 1999 with Krystian Zimerman, whose…

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Violin Sonatas Vol. 1 (Alina Ibragimova [v], Cédric Tiberghien [p])

Volume 1 is a complete cycle of the Beethoven sonatas, which do not traverse the same range of styles or psychological landscapes as the piano sonatas, string quartets, or symphonies. Still, Ibragimova and Tiberghien create their own universe here, such is their joint command of technique, insight and the sheer stylish charm of their playing. They deliver so many felicitous moments it’s hard to know where to start. I could begin with the wonderful way they capture the contrast in the third variation of the central movement of the Op 12. The first two variations are very much in Mozartian vein but suddenly, there is an abrupt, minor key departure, foreshadowing, even at the outset of his career, Beethoven’s capacity to shock. Similarly, in the adagio of the Op 30, No 2, Tiberghien interrupts the ecstatic musing with sudden, vehement flourishes and does it to perfection. I love the entire ambience of the Op 30, No 3, arguably the most captivating of the lot and its rag-tag allegro vivace finale (which, for unaccountable reasons always reminds me of Aaron Copland’s Hoe down). I’ll be surprised if I’m as taken with any other performances for a long time.

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Deutsche Barocklieder (Andreas Scholl, Markus Märkel)

But its influences are wider than that, often bridging the areas between folk song and the more classical and romantic lied with which most are us are familiar. The composers on this recording are unlikely to be known to many music lovers. The earliest songs are by Johann Nauwach (1595-1630) and Heinrich Albert (1604-1651). Adam Krieger (1634-1666) is represented by four songs, one of which is Der Rheinsche Wein. It is a jolly affair, complete with chorus and very like a tavern song of the period. In contrast, De Liebe Macht herrscht Tag und Nacht (Love’s Might Reigns Day and Night) is sweetly sad. Another significant contributor to this selection is Johann Philipp Krieger. He was an opera composer, and arias from three of his operas are here. From the elegantly lovely An die Einsamkeit, (Procris) to the pleading Schmilz, hartes Herz (Melt, You Stony, Hard Heart) from Cecrops. Harpsichordist, Markus Märkel, makes a significant contribution and the instrumental accompaniment is as impeccable as Scholl’s elegant singing. A superb CD of delightful music that is refreshing to the ear.