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…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: WALTON Cello Concerto, Passacaglia for solo cello BLOCH Suite No. 1 for solo cello LIGETI Sonata for solo cello BRITTEN Ciaccona (cello: Pieter Wispelwey; SSO/Tate)

It was premiered by its dedicatee, Gregor Piatigorsky, in January 1957. It is a calmer, more serene composition than many of his earlier works – the violin concerto for example – reflecting the brevity of expression common in his later output. Its opening movement (Moderato) is pastoral and frequently beautiful, the second (Allegro appassionato) lively and passionate and the third (Tema ed improvvisazioni) contrasts both the pastoral and the passionate. This live, warts-and-all recording, featuring Dutch cellist Peter Wispelwey, conductor Jeffrey Tate and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, was made in 2007 at the Sydney Opera House. Wispelwey is a passionate advocate for this work and it shows; the SSO, directed by the underrated Tate, play out of their skins. The remainder of this disc was recorded later in Holland and features Wispelwey playing solo cello pieces of the 20th century. It would be easy to dismiss these as mere filler, but they are actually wonderful and welcome renditions of some rarely heard pieces. Chief among them is a superb version of Ernest Bloch’s fascinating Bach-inspired Suite No. 1 for solo cello, alongside short works by György Ligeti, Walton and Benjamin Britten.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL Concerti Grossi, Opus 6 (Australian Brandenburg Orchestra; harpsichord and direction: Paul Dyer)

Statistics prove nothing, and what applies today may not have applied at all three centuries ago, but it is unusual to have a set as large as this to refer to in one place. Two CDs are just about big enough to hold all 31 movements of the 12 Concerti Grossi of Handel’s Opus 6, without any evidence of tampering with their content. Everything here attests to the fecundity of Handel’s imagination. Every variation you might think of is no more than his starting point, and from start to finish of this impressive undertaking by the ABO, there is not a dull moment, never a hint of repetition. Of course, without paying close attention to the detailed playlist, you will not stand a chance of being able to trace all of this sequentially from one concerto to the next. But in terms of the overall effect, that hardly matters at all. Wherever you are within it, what you find yourself listening to is fresh, vigorous even when introspective, exquisitely played and a real joy to be hearing. If you think of Baroque music as being yawn-inducingly dull fare, this might just change your mind. You owe it to your aural…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VARIOUS COMPOSERS Homage (violin and viola: James Ehnes)

Every generation there is a new high-water mark in virtuoso violin playing set by a recording artist. Heifetz, Julian Sitkovetsky, Michael Rabin, Gidon Kremer and others each took it upon themselves to create cutting-edge recorded documents that revealed the advances in technique they had achieved, and here is the equivalent CD of our time.  James Ehnes takes virtuosity to a new level in Homage, playing on 12 different priceless instruments from David Fulton’s collection – quite likely the greatest private collection in history. All up it includes six Strads, two Del Gesu Guarneris (including Menuhin’s Lord Wilton), as well as a Pietro Guarneri, and violas by Gasparo da Salo, Andrea Guarneri and Guadagnini. Aware of the history-making opportunity afforded to him by having access to these instruments, Ehnes has risen to make a classic violin recording.  Matching the cleanness of Heifetz, but with a richer sound and a more varied tonal palette than all of the above, and with an astounding and instinctive melodic gift that only Kremer could rival, Ehnes has staked out a unique place in the violin-playing firmament. If people think that this may be a result of the wonders of digital editing, there is even a DVD…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN: Études BEETHOVEN Sonata Op. 106 ‘Hammerklavier’; Liszt: Paganini Étude no.3 ‘La Campanella’ MUSTO Improvisation and Fugue (piano: Nobuyuki Tsujii)

This disc, recorded during the competition, contains some of the performances that so impressed the judges. Chopin’s Études are ideal competition pieces with their combination of technical and musical demands and Tsujii’s performance is generally equal to both challenges. No. 1, with its glittering arpeggios and No. 2 with its chromatic scales both demonstrate his remarkable technical facility without displaying much musical subtlety. By No.3, however, both elements combine wonderfully and Nos. 4, 5 and 6 are equally well balanced. Beethoven’s Hammerklavier is a much greater challenge for any pianist. Although Tsujii is absolutely comfortable with its technical demands, his performance does at times lose focus. In the Adagio, for example, he displays a remarkably delicate touch but his performance lacks momentum at some crucial moments, leaving it sounding episodic. Liszt’s La Campanella, is a different matter altogether, revealing his talent in full. Not a note is out of place, technically difficult passages are rendered with insouciance making the overall effect dazzling. Finally, the performance of John Musto’s Improvisation and Fugue, won Tsujii the prize for the best performance of a new work. A strong debut from a formidable talent who promises much.

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: NYMAN The Piano Concerto; MGV (piano: Kathryn Stott; Michael Nyman Band and Orchestra; Royal Liverpool PO/Nyman)

Argo, under Andrew Cornall, in the late 1980s and ‘90s produced an extraordinary array of historic recordings of American and English minimalists such as Bryars, Nyman, Torke, Kernis and Turnage. Much of the Argo back catalogue is now being released by Decca as digital downloads, although this CD, along with the other Nyman Argo recordings, is being released on Michael Nyman’s own label. Nyman initially studied Baroque music and much of his music is based on the same structures as one would find in Purcell. His breakthrough came when he played the Mozart “Catalogue Aria” from Don Giovanni in a style reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis, and realised that the structures of Classical and Baroque music continued to function perfectly when combined with the impetus and energetic thrust of rock and roll. In a way he got lucky with one truly great idea that produced a career’s worth of pieces of which the visceral MGV is one of his best. The title stands for Musique à Grand Vitesse (High Speed Music) and the powerful momentum it produces creates an amazing effect. Meanwhile The Piano Concerto, drawn from his ingenious film score for The Piano that made his name a global…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: NYMAN The Piano Concerto, MGV (piano: Kathryn Stott; Michael Nyman Band and Orchestra; Royal Liverpool PO/Nyman)

Argo, under Andrew Cornall, in the late 1980s and ‘90s produced an extraordinary array of historic recordings of American and English minimalists such as Bryars, Nyman, Torke, Kernis and Turnage. Much of the Argo back catalogue is now being released by Decca as digital downloads, although this CD, along with the other Nyman Argo recordings, is being released on Michael Nyman’s own label. Nyman initially studied Baroque music and much of his music is based on the same structures as one would find in Purcell. His breakthrough came when he played the Mozart “Catalogue Aria” from Don Giovanni in a style reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis, and realised that the structures of Classical and Baroque music continued to function perfectly when combined with the impetus and energetic thrust of rock and roll. In a way he got lucky with one truly great idea that produced a career’s worth of pieces of which the visceral MGV is one of his best. The title stands for Musique à Grand Vitesse (High Speed Music) and the powerful momentum it produces creates an amazing effect. Meanwhile The Piano Concerto, drawn from his ingenious film score for The Piano that made his name a global…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Sweden: Between Triol and Sextondel (various artists)

The title translates as “Between Triplet and Semiquaver”, so no need to go looking for Triol and Sextondel on a map of Sweden. Well, unless… The violin takes precedence, instrumentally, and immediately makes you think “fiddle” rather than “violin”. One or two of the other instruments look interesting, you would not want to get your foot caught. The sound characteristics initially suggest what you might expect to hear if listening to traditional country music from other northerly places like Eire or Scotland, but perhaps that connection is innocently set adrift on the vaguely nautical wash that drifts its way in and out of one track, and then another. These are mainly traditional airs, a few composed or enhanced by the musicians themselves, who represent different generations and origins. The project reflects considerable dedication to their mission of tracking down music wherever it may crop up in any corner of Sweden, and their treatment of what they have found is more compelling than the concept might suggest. There is something curiously haunting about the consolidated sound that this overall blend of elements generates, capturing a real atmosphere, a sense of distance, far horizons and remoteness in space and time from any…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH Toccatas and Fantasias for Organ (organ: Bernard Foccroulle)

As a result this record of the Belgian organist Bernard Foccroulle playing Bach‘s most famous works for organ came as a real surprise to me. Gone are the emphatic tempi and exaggerated gestures, the gluey fingering, the creakiness and delay of the larger pipes and the bloated sense of music-making swimming in enormously reverberant acoustics that gave the worst organ playing its reputation as having an overblown sense of grandeur. However here we have tight, clean articulation that sacrifices no sense of scale in its gestures, married to bright, clear registers, all of which brings everything back to a more human scale. It feels like two centuries of dust has been blown off and Bach finally sounds like himself again and not just a test piece for subwoofers for the most expensive stereo in the hi-fi showroom. I’d have to say I enjoyed this more than any other organ CD in memory. For one, my ears remained fresh throughout, and second the quality of the recording is superb. I’d have to say based on this recording Bernard Foccroulle is the finest organist I have ever heard. To paraphrase Haydn’s compliment to Mozart – “he has great skill but more importantly…

January 19, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SALZEDO Trois Morceaux CAPLET Divertissements IBERT Six Pièces (harp: Lavinia Meijer)

Plenty of good work here to satisfy harp lovers. This is thoughtful music with enough substance for Lavinia Meijer to promote herself and her instrument in just the way that her CD notes indicate she set out to do when she was eight, and the unique qualities of the harp first entranced her. She may have plucked a good few strings since then, but Meijer is still young and there must have been a considerable temptation for her backers and supporters to give her the glamour treatment.  With these French works, however, she proves that her current rising reputation is based on solid musicianship, and the image projected by this package is welcome for its restraint. Each of the three pieces has more to it than is often the case with material used for the purposes of harp recital. They may all be 20th century vintage, but none of them would count as experimental. Rather, the overall effect is generally subdued and understated, with an air of deliberation in exploring the capabilities of the instrument. Thematic developments are given the space they need to take place in their own time, without being forced. In the end, this is not an attempt by Meijer to dazzle…

January 18, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: VARIOUS COMPOSERS (The Swingle Singers)

The a capella group The Swingle Singers were originally a French vocal group, founded by Ward Swingle back in 1962, but this 4-disc set represents the 1990s output of a later ensemble, based in London. This excruciatingly twee group has lasted more than four decades. Travel to the wrong parts of the world and you’re likely to still run the danger of hearing them in concert. They just will not give up on their quest to merge the traditions of American jazz scat-singing and European classical music, and lose the best parts of both along the way. The four albums in this set are A Capella Amadeus: A Mozart Celebration, and although Mozart had a strong sense of humour,I doubt if he would have been amused by what the Swingles do to the Overture to The Magic Flute, or to any of the other selections from his operas, piano concertos and sacred music. Bach Hits Back is the Swingle’s second attempt to destroy JS Bach’s reputation. Sadly, despite the title, Bach cannot hit back. The third album, 1812, is a live concert disc which tackles Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Gershwin and even Lennon/McCartney. The collection concludes with Around the World, a folk-song…