11 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Mahler: Symphony No 2 (MSO)

In an industry said to be in more or less dire straits by various sources, I’m amazed that a small boutique label like Oehms can afford to issue two recordings of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony with different conductors and orchestras. Simone Young’s Hamburg recording followed
 hot on the heels of Markus Stenz’s Cologne effort. Now, here is another Markus Stenz live performance with the Melbourne Symphony, of which he was chief conductor. Stenz proved his credentials as a Mahler conductor during his slow-release cycle a few years ago. This performance dates from December 2004. I don’t know why it’s taken almost a decade to reach us. That said, I enjoyed this traversal. It’s quite different from Simone Young’s: more volatile, with a much greater range of tempos and moods. Occasionally, I felt he skated over details in the first movement and the phrasing risked sounding perfunctory. (Perhaps ironically, this version is overall about four minutes longer than Young’s.) The Minuet movement is commendably unsentimental
 but the Scherzo is taken too 
fast for it to register its sardonic and demonic quality. Both Stenz’s soloists, mezzo-soprano Bernadette Cullen and soprano Elizabeth Whitehouse, seem more comfortable than their Hamburg counterparts. Also, in the Urlicht…

7 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Schubert: Complete Symphonies (Minkowski)

What a journey is traversed in Schubert’s nine symphonies, from the adolescent pomposity of the opening flourish of the First, through the genuine drama of the Fifth and onto the pure, unadulterated inspiration of the final two. And along the way are the under-appreciated gems, the Third in particular that, please forgive me, beats hands- down anything that Mozart or Mendelssohn had written in the symphonic form by the same age of barely 20. No wonder so many of the great conductors have had a crack at the complete set, and let’s just list von Karajan, Böhm, Barenboim, Muti, Abbado and Harnoncourt for starters, not to mention the Peter Maag LP-era and the Jos van Immerseel sets. So Marc Minkoswki and Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble are mixing it with the big boys in this new boxed set recorded live in March 2012 in Vienna’s Konzerthaus. Good thing they know what they’re doing. Using the same technique they applied to Haydn’s London Symphonies, the 30-year-old French group performed the entire series in a week and recorded the lot, the upshot of the spontaneity being some really exciting performances, and the downside being the occasional ouch-moment when the period instruments remind…

7 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Giulio Cesare (Alan Curtis)

Hopping from label to label, Alan Curtis and his ensemble Il Complesso Barocco have managed to notch up an arsenal of Handel opera recordings, alternating between the composer’s more familiar works – Ariodante, Alcina and Rodelinda – and lesser-known gems such as Floridante and Ezio. Now the group has tackled what is
arguably Handel’s greatest stage
work, Giulio Cesare in Egitto. The
 cast, even by Curtis’s luxurious
 standards, is remarkable. Marie-
Nicole Lemieux’s billowing, 
fruity contralto is gripping in the 
title role, whether she’s singing up
 a storm of coloratura (her Empio, diró
 is fabulously ferocious) or basking in
 the reverential stillness of Alma del gran Pompeo, delivered not only with exceptional breath control and tonal beauty, but with moving sincerity. Indeed, that sense of sincerity underpins every performance in this recording. Karina Gauvin’s Cleopatra – one of Handel’s most varied and challenging female roles – is also sensationally sung (Gauvin’s full-bodied, opalescent soprano is one of the finest of its type) and delicately characterised, from the flirtatiousness of Venere bella to a poignant Se pietà and a breathtaking Da tempeste. While this dynamic duo might on its own make a triumph of this set, they’re well matched by their colleagues. Romina Basso’s…

7 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Fauré: Requiem (Tenebrae); Bach: Ciacona (Nikolitch)

What is it about the key of D Minor? Think of the mighty Toccata and Fugue in that key we ascribe to Bach, or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. There seems to be something monumental embedded in the DNA of this key that speaks to us of life and death, of the meaning of our existence. Enterprising programmers at the City of London Festival in 2011 used D Minor to forge an interesting musical link between Bach’s solo Violin Partita No 2 and the Fauré Requiem. Obviously the Requiem is
 concerned with death, but research presented with this disc suggests 
that the outsize Ciacona with which Bach concluded the Partita is a memorial for his first wife Maria Barbara, who died suddenly at Cöthen in 1720 while Bach was away with his patron, Prince Leopold in Karlsbad. Professor Helga Thoene further suggests that the whole partita is based on a series of chorales (inaudible to the listener) and has the secret theme of death and resurrection. To prove this theory, violinist Gordan Nikolitch performs the Partita interleaved with apposite chorales sung by Tenebrae.
 In the concluding Ciacona the forces join together to create an atmospheric, if not wholly convincing musical hybrid. The…

7 March, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Gershwin & Me

Those who are familiar with pianist Simon Tedeschi’s artistry will realise that Gershwin and the pianist go back a long way. (In fact, he made his debut with Graham Lyell in the concert band version of Rhapsody in Blue at the tender age of twelve.) Not only is it central to his performance schedules; he plays it in different guises, (he’s been heard in all of the arrangements of Rhapsody in Blue from solo
piano and piano with percussion
to jazz band and Ferde Grofé’s
familiar 1942 version for full
orchestra.) The major question
arising from all of this is why has
taken Tedeschi so long to record
this material, which he describes as
“the accompaniment to my life and musical career”? Given the uniform mastery of these performances, it must be agreed that this project has been worth the wait. As early as the second selection on the disc, the gorgeous trilogy of blues-inflected Preludes, it is apparent that this is a Gershwin interpreter who can hold his own against anyone in the catalogue. Tedeschi has the full measure of these short but often elusive pieces and, as elsewhere in this remarkable recital, goes a long way towards proving
that it is no longer considered necessary to be…

28 February, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: 3: Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann

The music: Vivaldi’s Venice, Handel’s London and Telemann’s Hamburg. The performers’ birthplaces: Genevieve Lacey’s Wapenamanda (Papua New Guinea), Neal Peres Da Costa’s Goa (India) and Daniel Yeadon’s Huby (UK). The rehearsals and recording: Melbourne and Sydney. Thus the eight beautiful maps that adorn the booklet accompanying this toothsome program of chamber music from three of Australia’s finest Baroque musicians. There are arrangements of well-known orchestral works, such as Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor RV522; there’s even one for cello, recorder and organ of an aria from Handel’s opera Tamerlano. There are famous chamber works, such as Handel’s Sonata in A Minor for recorder and continuo, HWV362. And, to allow each musician to really shine, there are solo works for each instrument: Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith variations for harpsichord, Telemann’s Fantasia for solo recorder and Andante from a sonata for viola da gamba. Lacey has always thrived on the recorder’s sweetness of tone and erotic associations, with a sensuous tone that plays down her considerable technical abilities in favour of something more earthy. Da Costa’s phrasing and articulation and Yeadon’s incisive bowing and rhythmic alertness underpin and complete a musical marriage made in heaven.

28 February, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Alison Balsom: Sound the Trumpet

When any classical musician wears milliondollar jewels and designer micro-dresses to industry events, is dubbed by Fleet Street as the “Trumpet Crumpet”, and sends the tabloids into a frenzy when she breaks up with her boyfriend, you could be forgiven for assuming that she’s just a rubbish player trading on her good looks. But from the moment Alison Balsom enters on Sound the Trumpet, her fifth album since the career-defining Caprice of 2006, all cynicism and doubts are cast aside. Playing natural (valveless) trumpets, the 34-year-old multi- Classical Brit award-winner is in rare form and this follow-up to last year’s Seraph, which featured scary contemporary concerto repertoire, contains ceremonial music by Britain’s two greatest early masters in the form. With an inspired English Concert, reunited on disc with their founder Trevor Pinnock for the first time since 2002 and captured vibrantly within the album’s rich sound palette, Balsom’s trumpet at first seems strangely subdued by comparison. But it soon becomes clear that it’s the less flashy tone of the period-instrument itself – blending rather than dominating like its modern successor would – and also part of an overall strategy to keep the trumpetweaving in and out of the album fabric…

28 February, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Glanville-Hicks: Sappho

Commissioned in 1963 by San Francisco Opera as a vehicle for Maria Callas, Peggy Glanville-Hicks’s last grand opera Sappho never saw the light of day, rejected on the grounds of “unacceptable dramatic timing” and a surfeit of “modal tonality”. It was thus spared the fate of Walton’s Troilus and Cressida and Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, two dangerously tonal operas that flopped in a musical world where the avant-garde was on the up and up. We have young Australian conductor and impresario Jennifer Condon to thank for deciphering the manuscripts and bringing this important work into the recording studio, just scraping into Glanville-Hicks’s 2012 centenary. Her silver tongue has even coaxed this particularly starry cast to give of their art for the sheer love of the music! For her second ancient Greek opera, Glanville-Hicks adapted a verse play by Lawrence Durrell, collaborating first by correspondence and subsequently at her home in Athens. Sappho, then, is blessed with a beautifully poetic libretto, packed with memorable phrases and singable lines. The plot is cursed with a lack of forward momentum, but what it lacks in dramatic impetus it makes up for in meditative insight. Ironically, Durrell’s Sappho doesn’t chase the young maidens but…

25 February, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Amour: The Film Soundtrack (Alexandre Tharaud)

Tharaud plays the star former pupil of an octogenarian couple, retired music teachers both. He literally plays the soundtrack of their lives: a gentle, fluid touch in the Schubert Impromptu No 3 D899, then a buoyant, effervescent Moment Musical No 3, contrast with the more searching tone of Bach’s Chorale Prelude Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ. With the protagonists’ love for each other and for classical music so inextricably intertwined, these piano pieces are cherished memories, a visceral reminder of bereavement and a comforting balm all at once. And isn’t that what music means to us all? Read the film review here.

31 January, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier (Opera Australia CD)

This memorable live recording of Strauss’ bittersweet masterpiece was taken from live performances at the Sydney Opera House in 2010 and shows the company at maximum strength with an outstanding trio of female voices, some superbly idiomatic conducting and a fine supporting cast. Cheryl Barker is Strauss’ Die Marschallin, a married woman trying to come to terms with the march of time who proves wise enough to let her younger lover move on to girl of his own age. The role sits well for her and plays to her natural strengths for vocal characterisation and attention to text. The odd shrill note aside, this is a deeply felt performance, possibly her finest on record. Emma Pearson is a delicious Sophie (the aforementioned younger woman), her pure voice managing the exposed high notes with greater ease than many a starrier name. Catherine Carby is equally distinguished as Octavian, ardent and youthful sounding, vocally able to compliment both Barker and Pearson. The various love duets are ravishing and the famous trio a genuine highlight. The young Austrian bass Manfred Hemm makes a ripe and resonant Ochs with bags of character and genuine Viennese accent.  If his top is a little pushed, his…

31 January, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Vinci: Artaserse

The short life of the Neapolitan composer Leonardo Vinci reads like an opera plot, full of triumphs and intrigues and culminating in death via a cup of poisoned chocolate. Yet the “Lully of Italy” blazed brightly, renowned in his day for his melodic style and natural expression. Artaserse, presented in Rome in 1730 a mere three months before the composer’s sticky end (pardon the pun), was his crowning glory, typical of his gift for vivacity unburdened by weighty matters of musical structure. The libretto, by the great Pietro Metastasio, is a tale of murder, betrayal, love and honour at the Persian court and is representative of his lofty yet accessible approach. As this was the age of the castrati and women were forbidden on the Roman stage, all six of the characters, including the two female roles, were played by men. Cue this historical reenactment with five of the best countertenors around ready to do battle with Vinci’s challenging tessituras and florid vocal lines. I’m happy to report that there isn’t a duff singer to be found on this recording. The two star names, Philippe Jaroussky as King Artaserse and Max Emanuel Cencic as his sister Mandane, are class acts,…

30 January, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Britten: Songs Volume 2 (Malcolm Martineau)

Malcolm Martineau is not just one of his generation’s finest accompanists, but also a first-rate musical curator with an impressive knack for matching songs to singers. This 2-CD collection of Britten songs is the second in its series, notable both for the breadth of repertoire assembled and as a platform for some of Britain’s rising vocal stars. Much of Britten’s vocal music was of course written expressly for his partner and music, Peter Pears. This collection includes both the first and last piano/voice cycles Britten wrote for the tenor: the amorous Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (performed by Allan Clayton) and Who are these children?, given authentic Scots lilt by Nicky Spence. Robin Tritschler and Benjamin Hulett, take on the other Pears-inspired repertoire, with Hulett’s elegant, witty singing in The Red Cockatoo and other songs especially appealing. Maybe a greater variety among these high male voices would have been welcome – despite its common inspiration, Britten’s music for tenor is remarkably adaptable – but all four sing with admirable commitment and clarity. Also striking is baritone Benedict Nelson, in the dark and mystical Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, his slightly rough-hewn timbre a compelling jolt amid so many sweet-voiced tenors….

30 January, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Ravel: Complete Edition

Meticulous. Polished. A perfectionist. These are terms frequently applied to Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). It is true that there is never a wasted note or an indistinct effect in his work. He is also linked inextricably to Debussy under the heading “Impressionist”, but Ravel’s music is less ethereal and his harmonic thinking conceived quite differently. (Debussy places unrelated chords in the ether; Ravel’s harmony is structured more like contemporary jazz. He employs chords of the 9th, 11th and 13th degrees of the scale but eliminates their roots.) Ravel’s personality was reserved and enigmatic – he was famously more relaxed with children than with adults – and this led to the perception that his music was merely polished surfaces. So it is, but I find tremendous heart in the melting opening of his String Quartet, or the tender closing chorus of the strangely affecting opera L’enfant et les Sortilèges. Nor does his polish make him a conservative composer. What could be more out there than Boléro? The climatic harmonic resolution is orgasmic! Scarbo from Gaspard de la nuit is extreme both in its technique and its inspiration. Virtuosity and spontaneity again combine in the rousing finale of the opera L’Heure espagnol in…