January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Rubenstein Piano Music 1852-1894 (Joseph Banowetz)

The pleasant salon music drifted around me and I fancied I dozed off. When I stirred moments later, I was aware of an accomplished pianist seated at a grand piano near the picture window of a tastefully furnished room. I saw Schumann wander in from the garden. He nodded to me agreeably and disappeared, probably in search of Clara. Then I fancied Mendelssohn could be seen sitting in a far corner of the room looking slightly pained as he listened. Tchaikovsky came in briefly and enquired if I’d seen Rubinstein anywhere. I replied that I’d glimpsed him earlier arguing with Sinding; or at least I thought I had. He listened to the music for a few minutes, then shaking his head sympathetically, said that he too had had trouble writing solo piano music of any significance. He then muttered something about meeting a young guardsman in the summerhouse and ducked out. I slipped back into reverie as one of the more agreeable works, the first of the two charming Melodies wafted across the room. The waiter confided to me that they were planning first recordings of much of what we were hearing. I nodded, impressed by the largesse of some…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MESSIAEN Poèmes pour Mi (soprano: Anne Schwanewilms; Orchestre National de Lyon/Jun Märkl)

It was originally composed for piano and soprano; this is the version for orchestra first performed a dozen years later. It’s sung here by Anne Schwanewilms, known as an interpreter of Strauss and Wagner. She is obviously a dab hand at more intimate lieder, as these songs – very personal love songs from Messiaen to his wife, mixed with the religious motifs which formed such an idiosyncratic core in his work – are sung with great delicacy and sensitivity. The religious motifs are heard even more strongly in the second offering on this disc, Les Offrandes Oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings) from 1930, Messiaen’s first published orchestral work. This still sounds contemporary in its harvesting of impressionistic dissonances and untamed musical emotions. On this evidence, Messiaen’s personal view of his religion bore heavily on pain and sacrifice and there is a great deal of very quiet solitary introspection too amidst the fury.The final work is a concentrated (9 min) offering to the memory of Mozart, which was commissioned for a premiere performance in 1991, the bicentenary of Mozart’s death. Beautiful mystical passages alternate with barbed sections based on birdsong. Although Messiaen said this piece was meant to evoke the happiness of…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: STRAUSS Four Last Songs; Morgen!; Zueignung; Der Rosenkavalier (singers: Kenny, Gore, Harms, Hibbard; Queensland SO/Fritzsch)

Here they are coupled with three excerpts from the opera, including the ecstatic Act Three trio, and two of Strauss’s most languorous solo songs. At 44:36 this makes for a short CD. The disc is a showcase for soprano Yvonne Kenny. Her voice has been described as “silvery”; that, plus her accuracy of pitch and sure dramatic instincts, ensures her success in Handel and Mozart. Her Marschallin from Der Rosenkavalier has also been acclaimed, and you can hear why in the Act One monologue recorded here. Her pointing of detail and sympathetic intelligence bring the character of the ageing beauty vividly to life. At this stage of Kenny’s career she is still able to project her middle register, but I feel that these pieces respond more fully to a larger voice. Despite her positive attributes, something is missing: compare the recordings by Gundula Janowitz, Jessye Norman or Soile Isokoski. Fritszch and the Queensland Orchestra give solid support, though the recording rather crowds them around the soloist. Harms’s robust Octavian and Gore’s slightly mature sounding Sophie are fine – but it’s Kenny’s show. If you’re a fan you won’t be disappointed.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: GLUCK Orphée et Eurydice (singers: Flórez, Garmendia, Marianelli; Coro y Orquesta del Teatro Real Madrid/López-Cobos)

Renowned for his virtuosity in bel canto roles, the Peruvian tenor has chosen to focus almost exclusively on that repertoire and this recording marks a rare foray into the world beyond Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. The focus, accuracy and supple legato which characterise Flórez’s bel canto efforts are undimmed, but it’s also clear that he’s not in his element. Removed from their usual florid surroundings into the cleaner lines of Gluck’s early classicism, Flórez’s bright, slightly nasal timbre and Italianate delivery start to jar: it’s a beautifully sung performance, but never a fully idiomatic one. Ainhoa Garmendia as Eurydice is more persuasive, her impassioned sweetness of tone disturbed only by some tightness at the top of the tessitura, while Alessandra Marianelli is a clear-voiced, if somewhat generic Amour. It is the Teatro Real chorus, however, who provide arguably the loveliest vocal contribution of all, with richly coloured ensemble singing. Jesus López-Cobos conducts with a firm if rather rigid hand, drawing glossy, well-articulated performances from orchestra and soloists, but not much drama – this shortcoming may also have something to do with the concert setting. A success, then – laudable for helping Gluck’s landmark opera back into the mainstream, and for…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MAHLER Symphony No 1; Blumine; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (baritone: Markus Eiche; SSO/Ashkenazy)

Mahler’s First was one of them. I vividly recall the normally somnolent Thursday afternoon audience rising to its feet to cheer after his 2002 performance. Sadly, neither that, nor the 2008 reprise, has ever been issued. I think his reading had both more Innigkeit and sheer élan than this reading by Ashkenazy, who I doubt has anything particularly interesting to say in this work. The opening string shimmer lacks mystery and expectancy. Is this, perhaps, because he’s a pianist, not a violinist and can’t convey the importance of a sustained string tremolo? The Wayfarer theme goes well enough but, overall, there is little sense of verdant nature awakening to a new day. The Scherzo needs more of what Germans call Schwung (“oomph”), and the trio should resemble an inebriated swoon, which doesn’t quite happen here. In the klezmer-meets-Kurt Weill third movement, again, the music is played a little too straight. The final sprawling movement is always a challenge and Ashkenazy and co. don’t sweep the field here either. Even the famous molto expressivo string passage sounds slightly perfunctory in their hands. Leonard Bernstein is, as usual in Mahler, wonderful in both his recordings, but my favourite performance is Guilini’s in…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 3, 5 (piano: Alexander Gavrylyuk, SSO/Vladimir Ashkenazy)

Vladimir Ashkenazy is well known for his fascination with the earthier side of Russian orchestral music. His orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition is far more liturgical than Ravel’s, and so it is to be expected he would take a similar view with Prokofiev. Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk follows Ashkenazy’s lead here: his interpretations and playing are remarkable, with many original touches and a dazzling technique. Ashkenazy as conductor understands what is required in this music and is a superb collaborator. The results are terrific. Like Beethoven, Prokofiev is able to alternate between the male and female moods in his music, setting beautifully dreamy themes against hard brutality. This is what makes the music so attractive and gives it life. The first is the simplest of the five works and easiest to bring off, provided you keep at it. And in this performance they do. This short piece won the composer his spurs in the 1914 Rubinstein Competition. It was a triumph and Glazunov begrudgingly awarded him first prize. Both it and the third concerto leap at you, embracing, irresistible. The third is generally regarded the greatest of the five and it is the most popular, being more comprehensible at first…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN Mazurkas, Polonaise-Fantaisie, Scherzo and Nocturne (piano: Cédric Tiberghien)

The awesome fecundity of Chopin and the sheer breadth of his invention often blinds us to the fact that in visual art terms, he was a water-colourist who eschewed the grander mediums of oil or sculpture. But with his chosen palette of the piano, he was grand enough – and delicate enough – for any purpose. In Chopin’s hands, the piano seems to have limitless scope for expression, from the most poised miniature waltz or mazurka to the most dramatic nocturne or scherzo. This recital from French pianist Cédric Tiberghien uses a clever selection of works to show the range of Chopin’s accomplishments. At its heart is a choice of some 13 of the approximately 50 mazurkas Chopin left us. Nestled within these polished miniatures are three more meaty works – the intensely dramatic Scherzo Op 20, the lyrical Nocturne Op 48, and the Polonaise-Fantaisie Op 61, of which Tiberghien writes: “If I were allowed to keep only one work by Chopin, it would be this… it’s the perfect expression of his personality”. This beautifully chosen recital has the benefit of extraordinarily clear acoustics. But the lilting yet powerful performances are enough to make the listener want to seek out…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Prokofiev: Piano Concertos 1, 2, 4 (piano: Alexander Gavrylyuk, SSO/Vladimir Ashkenazy)

Vladimir Ashkenazy is well known for his fascination with the earthier side of Russian orchestral music. His orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition is far more liturgical than Ravel’s, and so it is to be expected he would take a similar view with Prokofiev. Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk follows Ashkenazy’s lead here: his interpretations and playing are remarkable, with many original touches and a dazzling technique. Ashkenazy as conductor understands what is required in this music and is a superb collaborator. The results are terrific. Like Beethoven, Prokofiev is able to alternate between the male and female moods in his music, setting beautifully dreamy themes against hard brutality. This is what makes the music so attractive and gives it life. The first is the simplest of the five works and easiest to bring off, provided you keep at it. And in this performance they do. This short piece won the composer his spurs in the 1914 Rubinstein Competition. It was a triumph and Glazunov begrudgingly awarded him first prize. Both it and the third concerto leap at you, embracing, irresistible. The third is generally regarded the greatest of the five and it is the most popular, being more comprehensible at first…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HAYDN Mariazellermesse; Missa in tempore belli (Trinity Choir; REBEL Baroque Orchestra/Burdick)

Much of his church music, admittedly, lacks any more than a hint of introspection, spirituality or light and shade. One always has the impression that in Haydn’s take on Catholicism a good time was had by all. Even the supposedly darker Missa in tempore belli, nicknamed the “Timpani Mass”, really becomes ominous only with the menacing timpani figures in the Agnus Dei depicting Napoleon’s army besieging south-east Austria. Otherwise, only the unsettled minor key mood of the Benedictus undermines the otherwise joyful mood. Interestingly, the man whom Beethoven a few years later considered (initially at least) to be a liberator was viewed by the more conventional Haydn as a threat to civilisation. That said, performances of this calibre deserve an unreserved welcome. These two works were composed 24 years apart, the Mariazellermesse in 1782 as a celebration of the ennoblement of a prominent Catholic, a retired army officer who organised Marian pilgrimages. Owen Burdick and his forces (the Trinity Choir refers to the Trinity Episcopal Church in Wall Street, Manhattan, not Trinity College, Cambridge) and REBEL Baroque orchestra are agile and idiomatic in this music while, among the soloists, the men are adequate but the real star in both masses…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Rapsodia (violin: Patricia Kopatchinskaja)

Dubbed the “barefoot fiddler”, Patricia Kopatchinskaja is a young violinist from Moldova. This intimate disc captures her raw energy and stylistic hunger, with a mixture of folksongs, 20th century and contemporary classical works for violin with accompanying piano, double bass and cimbalom. It’s hard not to get swept up in her sheer love of music, her sense of freedom and spontaneity. You hear this especially in the folksongs. Likewise, the fully-notated classical works sound freshly invented. And Kopatchinskaja’s liner notes are as fun and as frank as her playing. Dubbed “the music of my life”, the disc is a family affair. Joining Kopatchinskaja at various points is either or both of her parents, Emilia and Viktor, playing violin/viola and cimbalom respectively. The mix of styles can at times seem a little bizarre, even if the pieces share Eastern European roots. The standouts for me are the folksongs, although they’re complemented well by the more classical outings. Ravel’s Tzigane might be an obvious inclusion and Enescu’s folk-inspired pieces are perhaps a little dry, however Ligeti’s unadorned Duo and younger composer Jorge Sanchez-Chiong’s vignette Crin are gems. Overall, a disc full of vivid colour and confident virtuosity.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PROKOFIEV Suites (baritone: Andrei Laptev, soprano: Jacqueline Porter; SSO/Ashkenazy)

Nothing lightweight about this collection of orchestral works by Prokofiev, beginning with the sound. Even in regular stereo it is vivid, and reproduces an accurate concert hall balance. My one sonic reservation concerns the swinging trumpet in Lieutenant Kijé, presumably principal Paul Goodchild: he’s too far away! The Lieutenant Kijé Suite is taken from a 1933 film score. The satirical story of a fictitious scapegoat in the Tsar’s army brought out the composer’s cheeky side, but there is lyricism too. Ashkenazy’s easygoing performance is one of the few on disc to utilise a singer: the pleasant, open baritone of Andrei Laptev. That commedia-dell-arte romp The Love of Three Oranges was premiered in Chicago. To be honest, the best music of the opera appears in the five-movement suite. Ashkenazy doesn’t make the mistake of rushing the famous March, while the Scherzo is brilliantly light on its feet with just enough of a sinister undercurrent. The Ugly Duckling, Op 18, is rarely recorded. Stylistically it epitomises the gentler side of early Prokofiev, along with the Autumnal Sketch, Op 8 and the Piano Sonata No 4, “From Old Notebooks”. Prokofiev colours the story with a Russian slant. Porter brings it off very well….

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BIZET Highlights from Carmen (singers: Domashenko, Bocelli, Mei, Terfel; Choeur de Radio France, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Chung)

It is to his presence that this Carmen owes its existence: the opera is not exactly underrepresented in the market. Bocelli, whose live performances are usually amplified and rarely in opera, can’t compare to his predecessors, but he makes a reasonably decent fist of Bizet’s guileless hero. There’s not much in the way of style or characterisation, but he sings (or croons) with commitment and warmth of tone. Nevertheless, he’s easily outclassed by his colleagues. Marina Domashenko’s magnetic, silver-voiced account of the title role would crown any Carmen; in an ideal world, this recording would be her vehicle rather than Bocelli’s. Bryn Terfel brings too much bluster and Scarpia-snarl to Escamillo, but his unerring ability to command a scene is undimmed, and Eva Mei is a touchingly girlish Micaëla. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Myung-Whun Chung provides sweepingly idiomatic support. This highlights disc focuses as determinedly on Bocelli as possible, skewing the dramatic arc somewhat, but most of the show’s other big hits are also squeezed into its 75-minute selection. Bocelli-philes may well prefer the complete recording, also released this year, but as a sampler and overview, this disc does its job well.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Live in Vienna (piano: Lang Lang)

Lang Lang has an unfortunate reputation for being a young “star”, in the worst sense of the word. Prima facie, this glossy, 2-CD plus DVD package does little to alter that impression. But the audio is actually relatively sober, and reveals a mature musician beneath the bravado. CD 1 is his first live recording of works by Beethoven. His reading of the Third Sonata is polished and measured, if a little honeyed. He is bold enough to follow it with the Appassionata. In the first movement, purely in terms of dynamic range the man they call “Bang Bang” is disappointingly demure, but his finale is scintillating. CD 2 features some of Albeniz’s short works and Prokofiev’s Sonata, No 7.He starts the Prokofiev brilliantly. At about half a minute or so in, however, the rhythm falters, and the tempo drops off, almost as if he’d started too fast. I had visions of Madame Sousatzka slapping her ruler on the piano top, shouting “Tempo! Tempo!” The second movement is fine; the Precipitato third draws squeals of delight from the crowd. All in all a great recital. If only he’d stopped there… The three Chopin encores represent the showman of old. The crowd…

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