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…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BACH Keyboard Works (piano: Angela Hewitt)

The sheer beauty of these recordings (all of Bach’s major solo keyboard works in a 15-disc set) lets one forget the years of intense labour that lie behind it. Angela Hewitt began recording this cycle at her own expense back in 1994, with the Fantasia in C Minor, Two-Part Inventions, Three-Part Inventions and Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. She had intended releasing the disc as an independent, but then offered it to Hyperion who accepted enthusiastically, also accepting the greater challenge of recording the complete major solo works. This was an odyssey of more than a decade, and Hewitt’s detailed notes gives an absorbing guide to her quest for perfection. Most of the recordings were made over just ten years – and then, in 2008, Hewitt decided to re-record the Well-Tempered Clavier using her own piano, an Italian Fazioli, regarded by most professionals as the finest piano made today. This set needs to be absorbed over time, so that one work does not slide into another. If you must choose just one by which to judge the whole, then listen to her magisterial Well-Tempered Clavier, which yields nothing to other Bach masters such as Richter or Schiff. She probes the inner…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ARVO PÄRT Symphony No 4

An early disillusionment with neo-classical and serial trends helped kick-start a radically minimal approach. This is the latest in a long line of Pärt releases on ECM. It’s difficult, then, not to measure it against his earlier discs, including landmarks like Passio and Tabula Rasa. In such company, I’m not entirely convinced by this album. It contains two relatively recent works, written a decade apart. The first, and more successful, is Kanon Pokajanen from 1997. It’s beautiful, classic Pärt – a smooth sound sculpture in which every contour is audible and every line counts. The text is the Canon of Repentance, an Orthodox hymn from the 8th century, sung in Old Church Slavonic. The singing here is gloriously full, transcribing the rich resonance of the Niguliste Church in Tallinn, Estonia. Pärt evidently took his time, spending an “enriching” two years writing it, and it paid off.The Symphony No 4 is a different matter. By its nature Pärt’s music is sparse; however, this piece seems in search of a core. It has all of his trademarks: pockets of sound balanced with silence; high strings; occasional pizzicato flourishes. Yet its greater purpose eludes me. Perhaps it’s the symphonic tag. Part’s previous symphonies…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUMANN Dichterliebe, Liederkreis (tenor: Werner Gura, piano: Jan Schultz)

The same is true, in a way, of great paintings, and of most Baroque and classical music. But there is something different about art song: while the works of the old masters now carry a patina of age, the stripped-back nature of the song-cycles means they have defied the years. On this recording, the words of the German poets Joseph von Eichendorff (Liederkreis) and Heinrich Heine (Dichterliebe) are brought to us with their freshness untouched by time. These compositions speak to us as a friend would in the most intimate conversation. Schumann’s songs of the joys of love and the anguish of unrequited yearnings are given a lucid and heartfelt reading by German tenor Werner Gura, who specialises in Lieder and oratorio. Although a tenor, he is reminiscent of the youthful Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – this is a light voice, never strained, and with a flexible baritonal extension. His accompanist Jan Schultsz (who is also a horn-player and conductor) is supportive at all times, but very much the partner. Everyone has their favourites in this repertoire, but this one is a worthy rival for the most celebrated Lieder recordings. A recital for the ages.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Lettere Amorose (mezzo: Magdalena Kožená; Private Musicke/Pitzl)

Having already conquered Handel, Vivaldi and Bach on recent discs, Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená is back in the Baroque yet again, but this time treading earlier and much less familiar ground. Lettere Amorose, her latest effort, is an esoteric and enchanting selection of vocal music by Monteverdi and his Italian contemporaries. These are songs, rather than arias: intimate and relatively simple in scope, and given luminous voice by Kožená. Rarities abound – nothing here could claim to be over-recorded – and Kožená revels palpably in the possibilities of this colourful and crucial musical era. From the tripping dance rhythms of Kapsberger’s Felici gl’animi, to Vitali’s silvery O bei lumi, to a vividly bereft rendition of Si dolce è il tormento (Monteverdi’s only appearance in the program), she is in superb form, remaining true to both the period and her own distinct, emotionally driven style. Another notable inclusion is Merula’s extraordinary (and extraordinarily long) lullaby Hor ch’é di dormire, in which Mary sings to the infant Jesus of his own crucifixion, accompanied by a ground bass of just two chords – a deceptively simple piece which Kožená sustains with devastating sincerity. Her opalescent timbre is well suited to this music, her…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Officium Novum (sop saxophone: Jan Garbarek; The Hilliard Ensemble)

Sadly I was forever turned off the soprano saxophone by smooth jazz superstar Kenny G. Not by his success – any instrumentalist who sells more than 75 million albums earns my awe, if not respect. No, it was his effortless frippery and shinily sugared tone that soundly nailed the coffin. Which brings me to that other soprano sax superstar, Jan Garbarek, and his latest pairing with The Hilliard Ensemble. On this, the second follow up to the phenomenally successfully 1994 collaboration Officium, they dovetail what they individually do best – liquefied saxophone improvisations and crisply sung early music – to create a gentle atmospheric fusion. The comparison that springs to mind is of a graffiti artist wandering through the Sistine Chapel and tagging at will. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for breaking down genres. No, it’s the slack aesthetic and overall lack of purpose that I have a problem with. On the plus side, the recording itself is superb. Like the first two CDs, it was recorded in a richly reverberant Benedictine monastery in the Austrian mountains. Likewise, I cannot fault the technique and expressivity – they are, frankly, sublime. It’s just that overall the venture feels inconsequential.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUMANN Davidsbündlertänze; Kinderszenen; Sonata in G minor (piano: Angela Hewitt)

Angela Hewitt has made a seamless and very successful transition from Bach to Schumann with her usual poise, precision, imagination and humanity. The Davidsbündlertänze are, even by Schumann’s standards, a poetic masterpiece. Hewitt is across every nuance, capturing the strangely off-centre melody of the first dance, the even stranger syncopation of the tarantella No 6 and the jolly polka of No 12 to perfection. In the penultimate number, Wie aus der Ferne (“As from afar”) the melody starts without a break from the previous section and then develops into a melancholy ländler. In Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”), sample the final section Der Dichter spricht (“The poet speaks”), savour the uniquely German quality of Innigkeit or “inner depths” Hewitt brings to this enchanting music. Time really does stand still here. The Second Sonata is more problematic. Although generally regarded as his best keyboard sonata, the form didn’t suit Schumann’s essentially dreamy nature and instinctively discursive expression. What some may see as excessive dramatic urgency I felt sounded more like relentless headlong impetuosity, although this is no reflection on Hewitt’s playing. The lovely song-like slow movement radiates a rapt tenderness. A lovely CD, beautifully recorded.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HALVORSEN Orchestral Works Volume 2 (violin: Marianne Thorsen, Bergen Phil/Järvi)

Johan Halvorsen was always an essential mention on any “one hit wonders” list of classical composers, known exclusively for his Entry of the Boyars. I missed Volume 1 of this series but I’m just as enthusiastic about Volume 2 as everyone seemed to be about its predecessor. Grieg himself loved these scores. Much of the music (Three Norwegian Dances, Air Norvégian and Chant de Veslemöy) features violin solos, delightfully played here by Marianne Thorsen. The second longest piece is the Suite ancienne, formed from entr’acts for the incidental music for Holberg’s (as in Grieg’s Holberg suite) play The Lying-in Room. It’s a skilful pastiche of 18th-century dance forms. My assessment of Halvorsen as a Nordic Eric Coates or Leroy Anderson was completely confounded when I heard the Second Symphony: it reinforced my amazement at how many seriously first-rate symphonies were composed by seriously obscure composers. This one is a little gem, with a recurring “fate” motive in all four movements (à la Tchaikovsky), a delicious oboe melody in the slow movement, reminiscent of the one in the slow movement of Bizet’s Symphony and a lovely intermezzo. All in under 28 minutes. An absolute winner!

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Britten, Ravel, Kleinsinger: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; Mother Goose Suite; Tubby the Tuba (Narrators: Christopher Lawrence, Marian Arnold, Emma Ayres; SSO/Northey)

As to Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, if there is a more radiantly beautiful piece of fairy tale music ever written, I doubt I’ve heard it. Musically, George Kleinsinger’s score for Tubby is very professional and works a treat. The American composer seems destined only to be remembered for this clever and delightful work, as we don’t hear much about his musical Shinbone Alley any longer.The Sydney Symphony Orchestra plays the Ravel better than it does the Britten (during which all concerned seem a bit indifferent). As there are plenty of excellent recordings for adults of this music, I assume the slightly patronising tone adopted by two of the readers is aimed at younger persons. Fair enough, though I would have thought such an approach a bit dangerous these days. Marian Arnold does “put on dog” a bit and even Christopher Lawrence, who has such a witty and droll radio style, seems less relaxed than usual. Emma Ayres is the most suited to her part in Tubby the Tuba, striking just the right balance. Conductors Benjamin Northey and Marc Taddei get their respective jobs done well, although I remain cool towards the overly reverberant recording of the Britten.

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN Violin Sonatas Nos 2, 5,10 (violin: Alina Ibragimova, piano: Cédric Tiberghien)

Again, their readings are marked by a seemingly infinite variety of inflections, astutely calculated nuances and exquisitely judged tempi. Listen to the way they play the deliberately out-of-sync notes in the Spring Sonata’s tiny scherzo (all 81 seconds of it, displaying Beethoven’s rather tentative approach to the idea of the four-movement sonata!), or the delightfully delicate way they negotiate the finale to the Op 12 No 2, when the piano reaches the end one bar later than the violinist. Hilary Finch, in her excellent sleeve notes, writes of the melody in the first movement of the Spring Sonata as “irresistibly vernal, creative sap rising freely…” which makes the drama of the second half of the movement all the more effectively contrasted. For all these delights, my greatest interest lay in the Op 96, Beethoven’s last Violin Sonata. Unlike the symphonies, piano sonatas and string quartets, Beethoven’s violin sonatas did not penetrate his “late” period, so this work is as close as we get. Nonetheless, it’s still enigmatic: its opening trill always seems to come out of silence as the continuation of music which has already begun. The overall mood of the work is lyrical, with a delightfully spiky scherzo, realized…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Hear my Words: Choral Classics from St. John’s (Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge/Nethsingha)

For many, the hot ticket item will be Allegri’s Miserere, which opens the disc. The old Kings College recording set the benchmark with impeccable boy solo work. So it is a pleasure to say that the St John’s boys are in top form. Worth noting is the difference in style between the two famous choirs. St John’s evince a more robust sound. Grieg is represented by Ave, maris stella, which is a bit dull. Pärt’s brisker, O virgin, Mother of God, is welcome, and Rachmaninov gives us an entirely different reading of the same text, steeped in deep-throated Russian orthodoxy. Palestrina, Parsons and Tallis remind us of the austere world of earlier church music. Following the beautiful piety of these early composers, and especially the perfumed sweetness of Franck’s Panis angelicus and Fauré’s exquisite Cantique de Jean Racine, it is a relief to get to the engaging heartiness of Stanford’s Jubilate Deo. Vaughan Williams, John Rutter and James MacMillan are represented by O taste and see, Oh Lord, thou hast searched me out, and A New Song, respectively. Appropriately, Parry’s Hear my words, ye people brings this attractive collection to an end with a vigorous show of Anglican robustness. At…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Beau Soir (Janine Jansen, Itamar Golan)

The great names of French music leap out, and we are also tantalised by the inclusion of the famous name of Boulanger. In this case, Lili, sister of famous teacher and musicologist Nadia. Lili’s contribution is a limpid three-minute Nocturne with a passionate central section. Less well known is the Swiss composer, Richard Dubugnon, who Jansen tells us is heir to the French sound.And it is true; Dubugnon’s pieces are safely at home with his famous colleagues Debussy, Ravel and Fauré – so much so that it is not always easy to tell where some of their music stops and his begins. He has three works on the CD: La Minute Exquise, Hynos and Retour à Montfort-l’Amaury. This last was written for the CD and is the most vigorous of the three. Messiaen’s splendid Thème et Variations is from the same oeuvre as Quatuor pour la fin du temps. The composer ranges widely from intimate delicacy to an energetic, passionate vigour that forms the core of the work. Fauré’s Après un rêve, which follows, sounds as if it could be an extra variation. One of the larger works on the CD is Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, a fine…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: TCHAIKOVSKY The Nutcracker (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Rattle)

Tchaikovsky’s ballets are the chick flicks of classical music, but like the best chick flicks they can be witty and reveal a light touch. The Nutcracker is crammed with memorable tunes and piquant orchestration – including the recently invented celeste in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – and shows the composer at the peak of his abilities in the famous point numbers of Act 2. The Waltz of the Flowers lilts as flightily as anything by Johannes Strauss. Right from the opening Miniature Overture we know we are in for some magic. Last year, Australian audiences got to sample the Berlin Phil in the flesh. They sounded impressive live, and do so again here. This is a lush orchestra, not a theatre pit band, and under Rattle they give a full-hearted performance. The conductor points and details the lyrical phrases, sometimes too indulgently, but his relaxed tempos never drag. The sound is good if a little dry, and rather light at the bass end of the spectrum. This is a double CD set, unlike Gergiev’s tougher, snappier version, but the extra outlay is worth it. Rattle’s discs come with a colourful booklet filled with beautifully reproduced costume designs,…