January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The First Recordings (soprano: Dame Nellie Melba)

The sound was thrilling, but in reality, atrocious. And she fared not much better on CD. When, years later, I listened to some of the early transfers from historic 78s to CDs of early Melba material, I wondered just what the fuss had been about. Why did opera-goers of her time make Nellie Mitchell from Melbourne the biggest star on two sides of the Atlantic? The transfers had removed a lot of the scratches and crackle but what was left was still thin, even sour. Well, this new release is a revelation. This is a dub of newly-discovered 1904 metal masters struck from the original wax, which had been languishing unplayed in the Deutsche Grammophon warehouses in Hanover for more than 100 years. Not only are the recordings cleaner than any others I’ve heard, they are also for the first time transferred to CD at Melba’s proper pitch, not erroneously lifted as every other transfer has been. Here is Puccini’s Mimi, sung as Puccini himself taught it to her. And Tosti, Verdi, a very effective ‘Porgi, Amor’ from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and simple folk songs to complete a portrait of her repertoire. This is acoustic history made palatable. We…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9, Op 125 Choral (London Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus/Tennstedt)

Even the Adagio in Klemperer’s legendary account sounds resolutely dry-eyed and casual. Klaus Tennstedt had an Indian summer of justified adulation from both audiences and orchestras in Britain, Europe and the US after a life in former communist Germany, but his career was nobbled by inner demons and crippling self-doubt. This performance is partly a disappointment. The first movement is played straight with little light and shade and a distinct lack of involvement. The big cataclysmic moments simply aren’t big or cataclysmic enough. Similarly, the scherzo, shorn of every repeat, lacks the demonic quality with which Klemperer, superb here – with virtually every repeat – imbues it. However, in the adagio, Tennstedt is superb. At almost 19 minutes, he’s as slow as Furtwängler and just as profoundly moving, especially in the way he floats the sublime second subject. The finale is similarly fine at the other extreme, with one of the most energised readings I’ve heard despite not sounding at all rushed. The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus are in good form and the soloists are all fine. The sound, despite being recorded in the Royal Festival Hall, is also bright.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PROKOFIEV Piano Concertos No. 2, No. 3 (piano: Evgeny Kissin; Philharmonia Orchestra/Ashkenazy)

Sergei Prokofiev completed his Piano Concerto No. 2 while he was still a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatorium. By this time he had already established a reputation as a dazzling virtuoso and precocious composing talent. Similarly, both performers here, Evgeny Kissin and Vladimir Ashkenazy, are Russians who had their pianistic skills recognised at a young age.  The Concerto No. 2 is unapologetically romantic, much like Rachmaninov’s concertos, but without the all-pervasive melancholy. The first movement is broad and grand in its themes and extremely virtuosic. The second movement (a scherzo) is as technically challenging as any, while the third is one of Prokofiev’s first excursions into the macabre. Full blown romanticism returns in the dazzling fourth movementwith its ecstatic conclusion. The second concerto is much less indulgent and much more a product of the 20th century, occupying a similar, sometimes jazz-inspired, sound-world to Ravel’s Concerto in G. Kissin and Ashkenazy are terrific interpreters of these works. Kissin is undaunted by Prokofiev’s extremely demanding piano (his control in the first concerto’s Scherzo is phenomenal) and a more sympathetic partner in Ashkenazy is difficult to imagine. These are live recordings and the frisson this provides adds enormously to the result. This…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH Organ Sonatas BWV 525-530 (organ: Christopher Wrench)

The sonatas were composed over several years from 1722 onwards, although they remained widely unheard until publication 100 years later. They have a constantly lively nature and a beauty of expression which belies early critical writing which claimed they had been composed merely as dry technical exercises in counterpoint and in independence of foot and hand. Although they lack the great rhetoric and drama of the preludes and fugues, they make up for that in their perpetual bright invention. There’s special interest in the instrument chosen for the recording – an organ known as the Garnisons Kirke in Copenhagen, which contemporary organ-maker Carsten Lund completed in 1995 as a reconstruction of the original baroque instrument which dated from 1724. The instrument lacks the grand sonority we associate with more modern instruments, but its agility and very clear piping sonority has great charm, especially when played with the facility heard here. The recording reveals every detail of the instrument and its special baroque-church ambience. It has been recorded in 5.1 Surround SACD, but for people not able to benefit from that, it can also be heard in stereo SACD or in conventional CD-format stereo. The result in all formats is outstanding.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SZYMANOWSKI String Quartets Nos. 1, 2 RÓZYCKI String Quartet in D minor Op. 49 (Royal String Quartet)

Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s two string quartets were written under vastly different circumstances. The First Quartet was completed in 1917 at the end of his three-year confinement in Russia during the First World War. It is typical of his output during this period – heavily influenced by both Debussy and Scriabin but, as ever with this remarkable composer, recognisably his. The Second Quartet was written ten years later, in 1927, after the return to his native Poland and during his first year as director of the Warsaw Conservatorium.  By this time, Szymanowski had been influenced by both Stravinsky and Polish nationalism and his mature style, while retaining his individuality, includes elements reflective of both. Biographical details of Ludomir Rózycki are not well known. As well as composing throughout his life, he was an important teacher and administrator in the Polish music scene. (He was the first chairman of the Polish Composers’ Society and Dean of Music at the National Higher School of Music.) His String Quartet, written in 1906, is a workman-like effort firmly rooted in a neo-romantic style. The Warsaw-based Royal String Quartet are superb advocates for this music and, especially in the two Szymanowski quartets, bring a subtlety…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BRAHMS The symphonies (Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle)

It was interesting, that despite his considerable discography, none of his recordings was considered good enough for the recent ABC Classic FM Symphony Countdown, confirming my theory that Rattle’s never recorded anything that hasn’t been done better by at least several other conductors. This Brahms cycle, virtually a rite of passage for Chief Conductors of the Berlin Philharmonic, doesn’t have any startling revelations, but is unlikely to disappoint either and improves as it progresses. To describe the playing as wonderful is hardly revelatory either. Rattle certainly unleashes the incomparable firepower in the finale of the First and, somewhat inappropriately, in the first movement of the Second Symphony – no pastoral idyll here. The Third Symphony receives a glowing performance with steady tempos and the intermezzo-like third movement has a particularly autumnal radiance. The visionary Fourth is sublime from start to finish, with the tango-like rhythm of the opening especially seductive in Rattle’s hands and the passacaglia finale (Brahms’s greatest symphonic movement?) sublimely phrased. My two quibbles are that Rattle does not observe the first movement repeats in the First and Second Symphonies, yet does in the third. The other is the atrociously niggardly playing time on two of the three,…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VARIOUS COMPOSERS British Music (conductor: Sir Simon Rattle)

Most people who want the much-recorded music by Elgar and Co will already have it, and mostly in better performances. Those who only want the contemporary works by Nicolas Maw et al will likely not want Holst’s Planets or the Walton works. Doubtless there is a droll side to packaging the Dream of Gerontius with Three Screaming Popes (surely a CD first!) but I don’t imagine that was the aim. So the collection has to be for the Rattle fan club.  Setting aside my usual reservations about the conductor (had he been on the scene in the 1950s he would simply have been one of a large number of excellent conductors), these are all perfectly good performances. In the case of the more contemporary music, better than that. Rattle is excellent in this repertoire, making a case for even the most unrewarding scores. For me, the musical utterances of composers such as Turnage often leave a great deal to be desired. Whereas Thomas Adès’s marvellous Asyla, has altogether more colour and variety. The bag of Elgar is mixed. Falstaff is appropriately brisk. The Enigma is excellent. The Gerontius indulgent; with Janet Baker a shadow of her former self, and Nigel…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: WEILL Symphony No. 2; Concerto For Violin & Wind Orchestra; Seven Deadly Sins; Mahagonny Suite (various artists)

The music is quite unlike Weill’s “Berlin cabaret” idiom and seems to resonate with an emotional ambivalence between an unsentimental nobility in the extended central largo, combined with wit and grace in the outer ones. The Concerto for violin and wind orchestra is completely neo-classical and somewhat prickly but, as one commentator observed, contains “roses among the thorns”. The mood here is almost Hindemithian with occasional touches of Prokofiev and Stravinsky. Zimmermann plays with an appropriately pared down tone. The vocal works I find less satisfying and unlikely to reward repeated listening, despite fine singing. Elise Ross, conductor Simon Rattle’s first wife, doesn’t quite differentiate sufficiently between the various deadly sins (although is much better than Marianne Faithful). No one can capture the desperation of either Anja Silja or Gisela May in this music, not to mention the 40-unfiltered-cigarettes-a-day croak of the incomparable Lotte Lenya.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ELGAR Symphonies No. 1; In the South, Serenade for Strings (various artists)

Apart from the recent Davis recording of the 1st Symphony with the Dresden Staatskapelle on the Profil label (an absolute blinder) this is the best recording of the work in my view. Barbirolli’s interpretation of the 2nd Symphony was also the best on disc for many years. Although over-shadowed by the remarkable 1st, it is nonetheless a great symphony, worthy of regular performances. Those of us who heard Vladimir Ashkenazy’s masterly performance with the Sydney Symphony last year can attest to this. Of course, the Philharmonia was the better English orchestra at the time. However the Halle orchestra players respond to Sir John Barbirolli in their own special way and play as if the devil were behind them. The interpretation is all. The lovely Serenade for Strings is always welcome. Norman Del Mar directs it well, with considerable sensitivity. Perhaps the recording is a little too reverberant, but that really is a minor problem. Of special interest in this recorded collection is the recording of In the South. Long regarded by Elgar buffs as the best performance ever recorded. If great Elgar playing is what you are after, you can’t go wrong with this excellent re-issue.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Virgin’s Lament (mezzo: Bernarda Fink; Il Giardino Armonico/Antonini)

If Trevor Pinnock and Christopher Hogwood represent the cooler end of the period instrument music-making spectrum, then Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico represent the other explosive extreme. If you add to that volatile mix the melodramatic gestures of mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, who is more hyper-emotional than the most exaggerated daytime soap actress, then you are in for an ‘over the top’ listening experience, where the recitatives almost require sea sickness pills in order to deal with all the swells. The Italian tendency for outburst is given free reign in this collection of Marian works, and it is all utterly convincing, if not somewhat shocking. In certain dramatic figures, the strings play incredibly roughly, and yet at the beginning of the CD the playing is so quiet and delicate, the gut strings only just speak. This CD isn’t for everyone but I suspect it is closer to what Vivaldi and his colleagues had in mind when they wrote these works, and it certainly matches the historical descriptions of the weeping and wailing of famous Baroque divas. The works here are by a combination of minor Italian composers such as Ferrandini, Conti and Marini interspersed with works of Vivaldi and Monteverdi…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Il Bel Sogno: Arias by Puccini, Gounod, Massenet, Verdi (soprano: Inva Mula; Zagreb Phil/Lipanovic)

Inva Mula was born in 1963 and has been a star for 15 years. She has appeared with Plácido Domingo in Paris, Munich and Brussels and has also sung at the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan in New York. Her most important recording so far has been of Bizet’s little-known opera Ivan IV for Naïve. Mula has an agreeable voice with sufficient power and quality throughout its compass to manage the florid passages of the ‘Jewel Song’ (except for a weak trill) and the melodic legato of ‘Le roi de Thulé’ – both from Faust. Unlike many sopranos of this type, her lower register is firm and opulent, with an attractive vibrato. Her French and Italian are both excellent. She also has a good sense of the operatic situation and the ability to project her arias with dramatic conviction. She does not, however, have sufficient vocal resources to project ‘Sempre libera’ (from La traviata) with the bravura that will bring the house down. She includes a rarely heard aria from Faust that is omitted in many performances and is joined in ‘Sempre libera’ by an off-stage tenor, Agim Hushi. The record’s only real fault is the occasional shrillness it…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VIVALDI Various arias (mezzo: Magdalena Kožená; Venice Baroque Orchestra/Marcon)

This disc, entitled simply Vivaldi, is the second collaboration between Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená and the Venice Baroque Orchestra. It is fine enough to make me want to seek out that first partnership, of arias by Handel. This puts the spotlight on Venetian master-composer Vivaldi, in the musical area he favoured above all others – opera. We know Vivaldi mainly through his instrumental writing. However, as the notesto this disc stress, Vivaldi saw himself predominantly as a man of the theatre. The15 tracks here are drawn from 14 of the more than 90 works he wrote for the opera stage.  Kožená’s lustrous voice is clear and agile enough to handle with ease all the pyrotechnics of Vivaldi’s most technically difficult arias. But for this recital she has deliberately chosen the deceptively ‘easier’ slower arias where the singer must search predominantly for lucid expression and meaning. The result is ravishingly beautiful. Most of the arias will be unfamiliar – even the limpid and melancholic ‘Gelido in ogni vena’ from Farnace has its own unique style and beauty, even though we can hear that it has evolved from the famous ‘Winter’ violin concerto. Particularly effective are the arias in which Michele Favaro (transverse flute)…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: DEBUSSY Pour le piano; Children’s Corner; Estampes; Arabesques; L’isle joyeuse and other works (piano: Jean-Bernard Pommier)

The charms of the Children’s Corner Suite are well known and it sounds more effective in this original form than in Caplet’s orchestration. Less familiar are the three pieces constituting Pour le piano, written in homage to the Baroque composers whom Debussy admired. Only one of these, the Sarabande, has become well known, largely because of Ravel’s orchestration. But the others, a Prelude and a Toccata are enjoyable and rewarding to virtuosos. The three Estampes probably represent Debussy’s piano style at its most mature and enjoyable; Pagodes evokes the Orient, La Soirée dans Grenade, in Habanera rhythm, evokes Spain and Jardins sous la pluie, France. The two Arabesques are usually dismissed as immature by most commentators, but they are pretty and deserve an occasional hearing. L’isle joyeuse is one of Debussy’s most effective concert pieces (even Rachmaninov found it difficult to play). La plus que lente will be familiar to most listeners. A novelty is Pièce pour l’oeuvre du ‘Vêtement du blessé’ (Dressing the wounds of Soldiers), lasing precisely one minute, and written in homage to wounded soldiers in WWI. Pommier plays all these works excellently and the recording, although dating from 1989, is first-rate. Recommended to those who yearn…