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.

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MAHLER Symphony No 8 (Sydney Symphony / Ashkenazy)

The opening movement is an assault on the senses, especially at its climax, and makes me wonder whether it’s almost impossible to “interpret” it in the normal sense of the word. That said, Ashkenazy and his forces handle the climaxes and double fugue of the first section with a judicious blend of heaven storming, rhetorical grandeur and clarity of orchestral and choral textures (no mean feat!). Music of this heft really needs majestic phrasing and it certainly receives it here. The quiet, almost sinister, opening to the second part (Mahler’s rather, for once, understated depiction of Hell) is well paced and phrased, and the music achieves a transcendental ecstatic quality, reminiscent of the incandescence of the final act of Wagner’s Parsifal; it’s also beautifully played, as is the entire work, by the Sydney forces. The massed choirs and soloists are all fine, especially Marina Shaguch in her stratospheric tessitura as Gretchen the Penitent at the end. My favourite readings of the Eighth are by the late and genuinely lamented Klaus Tennstedt (EMI) and the equally lamented Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG), but this is a fine effort.

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL Concerti Grossi (The Avison Ensemble / Pavlo Beznosiuk)

They continue to make excellent audio equipment, but for many years they have also made outstanding classical CDs. This release is another, and what a beauty! Handel’s Opus 6 set of concerti grossi is a textbook of string writing, which students have been studying for centuries. They also contain some of Handel’s most engaging music in the genre: elegant, witty, ever-so-stylish exercises for a small string ensemble. We must remember that at the beginning of the 18th century, London was bursting with musical enterprise, and Handel was very much at the centre of it. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to think of Handel as the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day. His genius was almost as evident in promotion and what we would now call marketing as it was in his music itself. The great Italian Corelli was well known in cosmopolitan London, and Handel may well have modeled his Opus 6 set of concertos on his work. Handel also composed them in a feverish burst of creativity (in two months of 1739), much as he did with Messiah. This recording by the Avison Ensemble is very sympathetic, with gorgeous sound and very stylish playing. Highly recommended.

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Die Zauberflöte (Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin / Jacobs)

Jacobs goes to town in this new Die Zauberflöte, with sprightly tempi, unconventional vocal and instrumental flourishes and sound effects aplenty – all of it backed up at length in the lavish booklet. The singing is excellent: Daniel Behle (Tamino) and Marlis Petersen (Pamina) are an ardent, lyrical pair, Daniel Schmutzhard a witty Papageno, and Anna-Kristiina Kaappola an edgily effective if slightly unruly Königin. It’s very much an ensemble piece, however, with no single, dazzling standout; if this recording has a star, it is Jacobs himself. In his inimitable hands, this is Zauberflöte as you’ve never heard it before, and in all honesty, may never hear it again – a curiosity, but realised with a talent and conviction that are hard to resist. Only one major caveat remains: Jacobs has, true to form, retained what seems to be every last speck of dialogue, and while it’s handled with as much imagination as the singing, its interference may be a dealbreaker for some.

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