January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Santo (tenor: Juan Diego Florez; Orchestra e coro del Teatro Communale di Bologna/Mariotti)

But after a series of solo discs which maintained this focus, and one charming excursion into South-American pop songs, Flórez has now hit upon a project which allows him to branch out: sacred songs. Seasonal favourites like O Come All Ye Faithfuland Franck’s Panis angelicusjostle alongside music from Fux, Ariel Ramírez and even Flórez himself. It’s good to hear the tenor cast his net so wide; and yet, it has to be said, it’s still on home territory that he sounds his best – shiningly immaculate in arias from florid bel canto-era masses, soulful and relaxed in the Latin textures of Ramírez’s Missa criollaor his own song Santo, an upbeat guitar-based number which takes Rossini’s lead in making a solemn text sound jaunty. But the further he moves from his usual fare, the less idiomatic Flórez sounds – contemplative music like Comfort yeand Schubert’s Ave Marianeed caressing by a more limpid voice than his bright, edgy tenor, and his delivery of traditional carols, though sincere, lacks gravitas. Nevertheless, kudos to Flórez for stepping beyond his usual bounds – there are better and more beautiful sacred albums about, but Santo is still a worthy addition to Flórez’s…This article is available to…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Requiem; Exsultate, Jubilate (singers: Sara Macliver, Sally Anne Russell, Paul McMahon, Teddy Tahu Rhodes; Cantillation; Orchestra of the Antipodes/Walker)

On the first listening, I was slightly underwhelmed. This performance, with orchestra using ‘period’ instruments just didn’t deliver the liveliness and inventive brilliance this classic Requiem usually shows.The fault was mine. The next day I cranked up my amp and played it at something approaching recital hall level. The music blossomed. Instruments opened up and voices became truly dynamic. Some music needs this approach. Forget the neighbours – let everyone share in Mozart’s final creation. Yes, a Requiem is often sad. But despite the fact that Mozart was dying as he wrote it, this piece is also full of great joy. For me, there are three great Requiems, by Mozart, Verdi and Fauré; all share this transcendental nature. Of the four very capable soloists, Sara Macliver shines out, and her performance of the very beautiful Exsultate, Jubilate is a particularly fine addendum. Also included on the disc are two gems; Ave verum Corpus and Sancta Maria, mater Dei, making a fully-rounded program of Mozart’s sacred works. Antony Walker’s Cantillation choral group and his Orchestra of the Antipodes are as lustrous as ever. Walker’s career is now centred on the USA, but long may he be able to return home to…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Brahms: Symphony No 4, Beethoven: Coriolan Overture (Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique; The Monteverdi Choir/Gardiner)

At first glance, Gabrieli and Schütz, glorious as they are, seem to be at odds with the symphony. Gardiner’s notes are the key to this collation. Using original instruments he has juxtaposed the symphony with some of the composer’s neglected choral music. He argues that as these wonderful works came first they are germane to his orchestral writing. The other composers were selected for their influence on his choral style and the Coriolan Overture represents the defining shadow of Beethoven. This is steely, hard-edged tough as nails Brahms. There will be those for whom this is heaven-sent, yet for all Gardiner’s dedication and well-argued rationale, much of this performance is a tiresome dose of musical political correctness. For example, the scrawny violin tone does not sit well with the composer’s grand phrases and rich palette. However, his approach works well in the lively Allegro giocoso, with its sharp rhythms and bright woodwind writing and also serves the edgy restlessness of the last movement. Musical research will continue and performance practice will evolve, as it should. Tastes will change and change again. I recommend the CD for the extensive interview between Gardiner and Hugh Wood. That alone is worth the price…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: LOCATELLI • YSAYE • CHAUSSON • SHOSTAKOVICH • RACHMANINOV Tribute to David Oistrakh (violin: Lydia Mordkovich)

This Bach-meets-Paganini tour de force begins with a prelude marked Obsession, presumably about the shadow Bach had cast over this music, but the finale Les Furies falls back on the famous Dies irae theme. In the Chausson Poème, Mordkovich is smoulderingly passionate. The jewel in the crown is the Shostakovich Sonata, Op 134 for Violin and Piano. The composer had written his Second Violin Concerto as a 60th birthday present for Oistrakh but got the years wrong and this sonata was composed for his real 60th birthday. It distills the ambience of the twilight world where ambiguity flourishes amid a thicket of coded messages, no doubt understood by Oistrakh but missed by the musical commissars. The first movement flirts, ironically, with the twelve-tone technique (strictly forbidden by the regime) in the first movement. The central allegretto consciously eschews contemplation for a manic moto perpetuo but the third movement presents a complex passacaglia (theme and variations) of increasing intensity and complexity. Again, a reference to Bach’s solo violin style emerges, this time fused with a sort of Rachmaninov-like effusiveness, only to subside ultimately into a withdrawn coda. Powerful stuff! David Oistrakh would have been proud.

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Habanera (mezzo: Elina Garanca, Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai/Chichon)

The concept gives her access to unexpectedly diverse repertoire. Several hits from Carmenappear, of course, including not only the Habaneraeveryone knows, but also Bizet’s rarely heard (and very different) first version of the aria; and there are songs from Falla, Obradors and Montsalvatge. But the gypsy angle also allows for surprises like I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Hallsfrom Balfe’s Bohemian Girl, Lehár’s Hör ich Zymbalklänge (Zigeunerliebe)and even the Old Woman’s Tangofrom Bernstein’s Candide. Across this broad range of language and musical styles, Garanca’s voice is voluptuous and velvety as ever, as she revels in the sensual possibilities of tangos, habaneras and the odd csardas. Limpid, legato beauty abounds, and yet, as the disc progresses, Garanca’s arias seem to start to melt into one another. Perhaps it’s that Spanish sun, or perhaps the urge to unify so many diverse musical strands, but each selection, whatever its origin, is imbued with roughly the same sultry colours. The result, while eminently listenable, and with moments of loveliness, has a certain superficiality to it. Garanca has proven her ability to compel, but in Habanera, seductively as she sways, the glamour mezzo of the hour sounds like she might just…This article is available to…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Goetz, Wieniawski: Piano Concertos (Hamish Milne)

Hermann Goetz spent most of his life under the shadow of TB, which claimed him just before he turned 36. Judging by his letters, Goetz was as polite and charming as this concerto. Thankfully, the orchestration, so often thick and unoriginal, is refreshingly transparent and the melodies fall gratefully on the ear. If I had to guess the composer, I’d say Max Bruch, although there are inevitable echoes of Schumann and Chopin. The first movement ambles along genially and the second is delightful in a sentimental way. Things liven up slightly in the finale but, come on guys, at 41 minutes this work is only seven minutes shorter than your average Brahms Second Piano Concerto, and look at how much he managed to pack into that! The other work, by Józef Wieniawski, brother of the more famous violin virtuoso and composer Henryk, was actually composed almost a decade earlier than Goetz’s, but seems more modern. I can’t agree with the sleeve note writer that the character of this work represents Sturm und Drang, implying a fusion of tension and drama, and a relentless barrage of bravura playing. I found it only slightly more energetic than its companion. Both works are…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: For Eternity (Celine Byrne, RTE National Symphony Orchestra)

Byrne had her big break in 2007, when she won the Maria Callas Grand Prix, and she’s maintained a busy schedule – if not massive stardom – ever since. Her website’s calendar shows a preponderance of concert peformances in the last three years, with just a scattering of operatic engagements. The repertoire selected for this disc reflects that: Byrne’s chosen arias are of the warhorse species, ideal for a gala if not always for her light, lyric soprano. She sings sweetly in Micaela’s Je dis and Marguerite’s Jewel Song, but sounds shrill and pressurised in heavier fare such as Un bel dì and Vissi d’arte. No surprise that Mimì is the only Puccini heroine currently in her repertoire. Byrne’s enthusiasm for Spanish comes through engagingly, while still lacking the last degree of idiomatic finesse. A lilting rendition of Granados’s La Maja y el Ruiseñor is the most successful of these selections. There’s a sense of the concert performance about Byrne’s delivery, too. Her phrasing and diction are mostly admirable, but her approach seems to focus more on dazzling climaxes than characterisation; her singing is extroverted and personable, but a sameness creeps in, with everything from Rusalka’s Song to the Moon…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Bartók, Ligeti, Kurtag: Quartets (Cuarteto Casals)

This disc features string quartets by Bartók, Ligeti and Kurtag. All three are Hungarian, and while each spent formative years elsewhere it was their relationship to their homeland and its often tragic modern history that so significantly shaped them. The biggest name here is Bartók. His Quartet No 4 is a gutsy, primal work whose angular melodies seem freshly plucked from Hungarian soil. Composed in 1928, it could easily have been written by any number of composers today. Clearly indebted to it is Metamorphoses Nocturnes by Ligeti. This is by the young Ligeti, long before the clocks, clouds and absurdist outbursts took over – yet the later composer is not hard to find. The opening gives things away: ostensibly twelve-tone, its cool overlapping chromatic rising scales gradually warping and spiralling mercilessly out of control. The third work is Kurtag’s aptly named 12 Microludes. Barely a minute long each, these hyper-miniatures are restrained yet astonishingly rich, constantly morphing unexpectedly. The works sound impulsive and fresh in the hands of Cuarteto Casals, whose colour spectrum is unusually wide: at times whisper quiet, other times as gritty as a rock band. A brilliant disc.

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SHOSTAKOVICH 24 Preludes and Fugues (piano: Roger Woodward)

Inspired by the Bach playing of the young Tatiana Nikolayeva, the composer wrote his own series of preludes and fugues for her in record time. In 1975 few music lovers knew the work, and it was the young firebrand Roger Woodward who made the first complete recording in the West. That set has now been reissued after 35 years in the RCA vaults. Woodward treats this work as if it were avant-garde – which it was closer to being in 1975. For a start, he plays most of it at dazzling speeds; his performance is 20 minutes shorter than Ashkenazy’s. Woodward’s articulation is crisp and pointed, the result not unlike Glenn Gould’s Bach (and the sound quality is similarly on the dry side). At high speed the C-sharp minor prelude positively glistens, while the A minor prelude and fugue barrel along. The G-sharp minor fugue is undeniably exciting, though it soon turns a trifle clattery, and the lovely A major prelude loses its tranquillity at Woodward’s rushed tempo. The well-known D-flat major prelude becomes a galumphing, mechanistic waltz: echoes of the young, sarcastic Shostakovich of the 1920s, so clearly heard in some other performances, are nowhere in evidence here. The…

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: JOSEF SUK Ripening, Symphony No 1 (BBC Symphony / Belohlavek)

Zráni (Ripening) is one of a number of deeply felt compositions – inspired by the rapid deaths of Suk’s wife and of Dvorák (Suk’s father-in-law) – that could loosely be described as being in the “triumph of the human spirit over tragedy” genre. This kaleidoscopic score demands virtuoso playing and it certainly receives it here. The BBC Symphony seems to have assimilated a genuinely Czech sound into their playing, even though some of the more histrionic sections of this score are heavily reminiscent of Richard Strauss. Its quiet opening is beautiful. Having said that, I think Zráni, at 38 minutes, is just too long, especially with such a rambling structure and virtually no program. With such an eventful score, the inclusion of a brief chorus towards the end seems strangely superfluous! The early E major symphony is another matter altogether. It radiates the same fresh alfresco sonorities as Dvorák’s best symphonic works. The lyrical first movement and the exuberant yet slightly demonic scherzo both contain some lovely themes, and the slow movement has a noble quality. The finale is a slight problem, however. Initially, it trips along with a wonderfully catchy “traveling” tune which would have done Suk’s father- in-law…

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MAHLER Des Knaben Wunderhorn (mezzo: Magdalena Kožená, baritone: Christian Gerhaher; The Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez)

First, I should point out that the set does not include Urlicht (Primeval Light) and there are no duets, but, apart from that, I needn’t have worried: these are finely performed, idiomatic accounts. Certainly, Boulez doesn’t see quite as much humour in the piece as, say, Tennstedt (EMI) and is, predictably, more at home in the darker numbers. But his soloists are both excellent. I’ve never been a fan of Kožená but here she’s charming, without being arch, and displays amazing breath control in the seemingly interminable “yodeling” effects in Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?, which Boulez takes at a dangerously slow tempo. Gerhaher is superb throughout, his lighter baritone exuding plenty of swagger and braggadocio in the martial numbers without the hectoring quality which occasionally obtruded into Fischer-Dieskau’s versions. The final song segues perfectly into the Adagio of the unfinished Tenth Symphony (an interview in the booklet reveals Boulez has no truck with the various “realisations” of the work) and here both conductor and orchestra are at their finest. This version represents both an apocalyptic vision and the anguished beauty, not only of Mahler’s oeuvre, but of all Romantic music in its exquisite death throes. The sound is so…

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: PERGOLESI Stabat Mater (soprano: Anna Prohaska, mezzo: Bernada Fink; Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin)

One is the superb Stabat Mater of Pergolesi (1736), rightly regarded by scholars as one of the most glorious creations of the Baroque era. The other is the fact that its composer died just a few days after completing this unique work. He was just 26, and these days his tuberculosis could readily have been contained. Might he have been another Mozart? We will never know. Nevertheless, we should be glad that we have this work, especially when we can hear it in as wonderful a performance as this. The two soloists are excellent, and the outstanding Akademie für Alte Musik plays at the high level we have come to expect. They pull no punches: the soprano conveys, fortissimo, her anguish at “pertransivit gladius” – the metaphorical sword piercing her with grief at the sight of her son’s tragic end. Above all, it’s Pergolesi’s work which shines. The striking thing is that his language is evident – no-one else could have written this piece. It’s at the same time elegant, restrained, lyrical and intensely moving. It’s not Bach, Telemann, Corelli or any other of the great Baroque era composers. If only we could have had more from this brilliant stylist….