January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Tchaikovsky, Liszt: First Piano Concertos (Alice Sara Ott; Münchner Philharmoniker/ Hengelbrock)

 Both are hugely popular and despite bursts of enjoyable vulgarity, both are terrific. There are also more good recordings of them than one can count, to say nothing of the dodgy ones. The Munich orchestra on this disc plays with great style and elegance. Ms Ott, who hails from Munich, is on top of the demanding scores. Her approach to the Tchaikovsky is dreamier than most, which is no bad thing, especially in the divinely beautiful slow movement. Even in the scherzo-like second section of the movement she maintains this lightness. Conductor Hengelbrock attends with equal sensitivity. It is their approach that distinguishes this version of the work. The performance of the first movement, just before the cadenza in particular, becomes a bit stodgy. In fact, at the risk of running to cliché, one could say that these are very German performances. As a pianist-composer, Liszt set the bar high, and few attempted his rambunctious concertos whilst he was in town. Listening to it now, a unified one-movement work, we would hardly credit that it took the composer 26 years to finish. German horns are in a class of their own, and they sound very fine at the beginning of…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ANDREW FORD The Waltz Book (piano: Ian Munro)

In a clever nod to Chopin’s Minute Waltz, Ford compiled a whole hour’s worth of his own ‘minute waltzes’. It’s a great idea which makes for an engaging and surprisingly rich disc. Like many of Australia’s best composers, there’s an unresolved complexity in Ford’s thinking. You can often hear his different influences competing openly with each other: English music, folksong, rhythm and blues, 20th century modernism. Perhaps ironically, a collection of miniatures such as this allows him, and us, to unpack these strands and gain a deeper understanding of what makes him tick. Spanning such a long period, the project became a kind of default diary. One speculates on the personal meanings behind each title, especially the Finnish ones (Ford met his Finnish wife during this time). The emotional and stylistic breadth is both The Waltz Book’s strength and its underlying risk. Ford’s approaches to the waltz vary dramatically, often from one piece to the next. The gorgeously tender It’s Dark in Helsinki is tailed by the almost obnoxious Mad March Days. The interleaving Invocations are Webernian in their pungency compared to the neo-Romanticism elsewhere. My advice for first-time listening is to savour the disc like a packet of chocolates…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Eroica Variations: Piano variations on themes by Haibel, Wranitzky, Salieri, Süssmeyr (piano: Ian Yungwook Yoo)

 But I feel they should shoulder the blame for the fetish with “completism” – in their inexorable march to record every note ever composed, irrespective of its merit. This CD is a case in point: the only reasonably well-known work is the Op 35 so-called Eroica variations on that theme used first in the Prometheus ballet music and then the finale of the eponymous symphony. Ian Yungwook Yoo is a fine pianist, who makes the crucial distinction of contrasting each variation and investing them with a particular quality. He misses nothing. The opening hauntingly anticipates Beethoven’s Op 111, his ultimate and for me greatest piano work, but Variation 5 has witty syncopations. There is playfulness in other sections and power in the concluding fugue, which prefigures the titanic conclusion of the Hammerklavier. I have to confess that, despite the advocacy of Ian Yungwook Yoo, I found the other works on this CD indescribably tedious. Anyone familiar with the aforementioned Prometheus ballet or the Triple Concerto knows that Beethoven wasn’t always storming the barricades or shaking his fist at fate, but I found 48 minutes of variations on extremely obscure music just too much, especially at one sitting. The four stars are…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUMANN Spanische Liederspiel; Minnespiel; Spanische Liebeslieder (singers: Petersen, Vondung, Güra, Jarnot, pianists: Berner, Radicke)

Robert Schumann composed two cycles from the set in 1849, for mixed voices and, in the case of the Spanische Liebeslieder Op 138, two pianists. Hugo Wolf later drew on Geibel’s work for his Spanish Songbook, a setting much better known today than Schumann’s, partly because the earlier cycles require multiple musicians. Looking to the warmth and freedom of southern Europe was a common theme of German Romantic art but, typically, Schumann’s choice of poem tends towards the melancholy. The duet from Op 138, “Cover me with flowers for I am dying of love” more or less sums up the dichotomy. Yet there is a sombre side to the Spanish soul that chimes perfectly with the “tortured genius” of Schumann’s muse. (Most of the songs in both sets are in the minor key.) The only overt Spanish-sounding note is in the instrumental Nationaltanz of Op 138, where the composer imitates the strumming of guitars and (possibly) the stamping of feet. These are stunning performances. The four young singers – none of whom I had encountered before – have strong, clear voices and the ability to colour the dramatic points of the poetry. Both pianists are sensitive, and the recording quality…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder; Preludes and Overtures (soprano: Measha Brueggergosman, The Cleveland Orchestra/Wesler-Möst)

Wagner’s love affair with Matilda Wesendonck led to the beautiful song cycle named after her and the lyrics she provided. It is musically akin to Tristan und Isolde. Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman’s diction is clear and her voice suited to the music. She sings with ease, although with a bit too much vibrato, especially given the brilliant competition in this work, from Kirsten Flagstad to Cheryl Studer. The rest of the program (from a performance in Severance Hall this year) delivers the usual Wagnerian suspects. Including, appropriately, the Prelude to Act One of Tristan und Isolde and Liebestod. Alas, the counterpoint to the big melodies is often weak and the playing dull. The two Lohengrin preludes to Acts One and Three get similar treatment. The prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and The Ride of the Valkyries don’t fare much better. The prelude to Rienzi, the composer’s first success, is a terrific piece. However, the brass fanfares are perfunctory and the usually thrilling piece sounds more like a ride in the country. Overall, Möst’s tempi are languid, which doesn’t sit well with the music. Is this the Cleveland Orchestra of legend? Based on this CD, I don’t think the orchestra…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: GOODALL The Seasons (The Tippett Quartet)

To describe something you can’t quite categorise as sounding like television documentary music is a cop-out I’ve always sedulously avoided, but in this case I’ve had to succumb. And what do I see when I read the notes? This piece was composed to accompany an ITV series called The Seasons. I then noticed in very small print “as seen on ITV 1”. In the somewhat narcissistic sleeve note, Goodall mentions the dramatic seasonal differences taken for granted by the British. This may be true but these differences are not effectively conveyed by the music. At 60’ it soon becomes bland and undifferentiated, especially with the occasional repetitive figures, which make the piece sound like a John Adams or Philip Glass pastiche. It makes Vivaldi’s effort seem all the more impressive when you consider he had very little experience of “program” music to go on. Another mystery is that the harpist and second cellist are credited, but in the first two movements of the final Summer movement, there are clearly a clarinet and celeste involved, whose players are not credited at all. If you have a taste for seasonal music, my advice is to stick to Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky or Glazunov.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: WHITACRE Choral Music (Elora Festival Singers/Edison)

If the message embedded in a poem is its key reason for existing, then this becomes complicated when we are presented with music ­– even settings of those very words – instead of the print on the page. Here, therefore, is a CD that sounds simply magnificent, yet is devoid of meaning in the bookish sense that Whitacre’s commitment implies. But what a wonderful mixture he provides to make the point! Eleven varied texts are selected from sources as ancient as biblical writings, up through the 13th century to e.e. cummings and contemporary writer Charles Silvestri. The music of Whitacre, who has become, at the age of 39, one of the most performed composers of his generation, brings new drama to these texts, holding them in real dramatic tension. You can really feel the power the composer evokes in manipulating high and low, strong and light, one against the other, back to back. Disparate they may be, but these pieces effectively merge into one long celebration of the quality of the collective voice, beautiful enough to give the spine a tingle, and an object lesson in how stirring and moving the human voice can be. What Whitacre has done with…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ALBINONI Homage to a Spanish Grandee: Concertos from op 10 (violin: Simon Standage)

If your mind wanders from this performance, no blame should attach to Standage and his ensemble, whose treatment does full justice to music that was brand new more than three hundred years ago. The Marquis would have had reason to feel his money well spent in giving Albinoni the means to be heard so far in the future. Disappointed, perhaps, had he known that the Opus 10 he was paying for would remain effectively undiscovered for most of that time, but finding it intact means we can hear the real Albinoni, rather than the reconstruction from fragments that he has occasionally had to put up with in the past. Very agreeable his music sounds, too, though with so much already available from the period, it claims its place as a welcome addition, rather than giving us a reason to change anything we already know about this particular artform. On a minor note, praise is due to Chandos for their creative artwork on the cover, based on an 18th-century painting of King Charles III. Most attractive, and the booklet notes are both learned and informative.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Berenice; Regina d’Egitto (singers: Ek, Bohlin, Fagioli, Basso; Il Complesso Barocco/Curtis)

 It is one of the great man’s earlier works, but had to wait 18 years for a performance. Written in 1709 but not staged until 1737, it failed at its premiere in Covent Garden and was largely ignored afterwards. It is not difficult to see why, despite many arias of charm and style that Handelians have come to respect and love. It contains only one chorus (the finale) and three duets. Having not seen the work staged, I have to assume that this does not make for an engrossing evening in the theatre. On disc, of course, this is less important. However, the variety of music and ensembles that we have come to expect from his masterpieces (such as Acis and Galatea, Julius Caesar and Alcina), is not evidenced here. Even as a concert it would be a stretch: 2 hours 45 minutes is a long time for an audience to cope with a seemingly endless stream of similar arias, no matter how brilliant. This performance is up to the standard that we now expect in this field. The reduced orchestra of Il Complesso Barocco (no flutes, trumpets or horns) plays well and the soloists are excellent. Special mention must…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BOWEN Piano Sonatas Nos 1-3, 5, 6; Short Sonata in C sharp minor (piano: Danny Driver)

Indeed, this is all you need to know to get a handle on this composer without actually having to listen to anything, and was perhaps written in the liner notes by someone who had heard it all before and thought they might save other people a bit of  time. Once you have heard it all yourself, you might think they have a point, but Hyperion has acted in the spirit of artistic appreciation by offering all of Bowen’s sonatas on the one double CD. Time-wise, these works spread across half a century of history when the world changed at least three times and Bowen’s music hardly did at all. Born in 1884 in London, he was a romantic right from the start, preferring minor keys and bluesy inflections without giving any clues about what else may have been happening in the history of Western harmony. If you fix on the sound of one sonata, you have fixed on them all. The nearest Bowen got to surprising anyone in his career as a composer was coming out with a Short Sonata, when fans might have expected something called Piano Sonata No 4 (which he wrote, but nobody seems to know where…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PAGANINI 24 Caprices (violin: Julia Fischer)

  This may be the closest thing to a live performance I have ever heard on a studio recording. The sound on my studio monitor-style speakers is uncannily like having Julia Fischer play her violin just three or four feet away from you. It’s not so much that her instrument has been miked very closely – more, the illusion is total that she is there, standing close and playing her instrument at her so-intimate audience. The Paganini Caprices are amongst the most famous of the solo violin repertoire, and many of the items are a recitalist’s dream for an audience-shattering finale. Most famous of course is the final Caprice, which is the wellspring for innumerable themes and variations, including the Brahms piano variations and, my own favourite, Rachmaninov’s sublime Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Fischer wants us to consider these Caprices as more than standout individual bravura pieces. She wants us to listen to them as a unified whole. I’m sure Paganini relished the flamboyant aspect of these works, but Julia’s performance is not only technically accomplished, it is artistically persuasive as well. The bravura is still there, but she does draw out intrinsic beauty, and thoughtfulness as well….

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One (piano: Zhu Xiao-Mei)

Two years ago Zhu Xiao-Mei recorded Book Two of The Well-Tempered Clavier (or, as this French disc dubs it, Le Clavier Bien Tempéré), and now gives us this two-disc set of Book One. The reason for this odd order, she says, is simply that she believes Book Two has languished besides the popularity of Book One. This ordering helps redress that balance. Mei, now living in Paris, has a special affinity with Bach. Not long after starting her piano studies, she was caught up in China’s Cultural Revolution and found herself working in a labour camp. Music was forbidden, but she had smuggled in a copy of the WTC, and spent day after day copying it to share with her companions. This gave her an especially deep acquaintanceship with the work, which shows clearly in this recording. It is instantly a classic account, which I’ll keep alongside my András Schiff and Sviatoslav Richter. Though those have great strengths, this account is somehow more touching, as if she is able to pierce through to the essential simplicity which lies within this great work. The recording too is flawless. Her piano is a Steinway, which allows more interpretative freedom than a period-instrument,…