Alexandra Coghlan

Alexandra Coghlan

Alexandra Coghlan is the classical music critic for the New Statesman, and also writes for The Independent, The Times, Opera, Prospect, Gramophone and The Monthly. She was formerly performing arts editor at Time Out Sydney and editor of Sinfini.

Articles by Alexandra Coghlan

July 27, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Haydn: Piano Sonatas Volume 6 (Jean-Efflam Bavouzet)

Six volumes into Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s tour through the complete Haydn Piano Sonatas, listeners will have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Neither Bavouzet nor his instrument (a contemporary Yamaha concert grand) are particularly interested in authenticity. Instead you get a witty, urbane, slightly French-accented take on repertoire that has long cried out for a contemporary champion. This is Haydn for, and of, a new generation. Wisely ignoring chronology, each volume is a musical lucky dip, throwing together a diverse grouping of works. Volume Six is built around the spacious Sonata in B Flat Major, No 11. Gone is the limpid Bavouzet of his Debussy recordings, and in its place an assertive, rhetorical voice whose lines emerge with such clarity that the effect is of a piano reduction of a comic operatic ensemble. The more sedate E Flat Major Sonata No 43 feels, by contrast, rather anonymous, despite Bavouzet’s frisky ornaments. This gives way with calculated shock to the expansive grace of the central Minuet and Trio. Bavouzet makes his slow movements sing in silky tone and legatos, but it’s the livelier, comic movements where he really comes into his own. I defy anyone to listen to the irrepressible…

July 21, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Beach, Chaminade & Howell: Piano Concertos (Danny Driver)

Hyperion’s admirable Romantic Piano Concerto series has been running for over 25 years. It would be easy to be exercised by the fact that it has taken until now, Volume 70, to arrive at a concerto by a female composer. Easy, but not entirely fair. Male dominance in the genre is almost total – even today – and perhaps more interesting than wrangling over quotas is the question of why. It’s a question this disc answers with vehement clarity. You only have to read the contemporary response to Amy Beach’s concerto – critics reading autobiographical significance into the lone voice of the piano crying out against the oppressive orchestra – to understand that a woman could never inhabit this most combative of musical forms on the same terms as a man. It’s interesting that both other concertos here eschew the traditional three-movement form – an attempt, perhaps, to reclaim and redefine their musical territory. Dorothy Howell’s 1923 Piano Concerto stretches the definition of “Romantic” to its limit. Filmic in scope, an abstract tone-poem drawing heavily on Debussy and Strauss, this single-movement work is the weakest of the three – an attractive showcase for soloist Danny Driver’s limpid touch, and the…

July 12, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bellini: Adelson e Salvini (BBC Symphony Orchestra/Rustioni)

The clue is in the title. Bellini’s ‘graduation opera’ Adelson e Salvini is more buffo bromance than tragic romance, and none the worse for it. Composed while he was still a student at Naples’ Royal College of Music, and premiered by an all-male cast of fellow students in 1825, the work is a precociously tuneful, intermittently dramatic affair (though the less said about the 17th-century Irish plot the better). Rossini and Mozart are plentifully represented here in the younger composer’s first opera, but there are also tantalising hints of the mature composer to come, and this premiere recording by Opera Rara does its youthful promise proud. Opera Rara know how to put together a cast, and this one’s no exception. Baritone Simone Alberghini (Lord Adelson) and tenor Enea Scala (his friend, the painter Salvini) battle for the affections of the magnificent Daniela Barcellona’s Nelly – richly resonant, painting her vocal lines with the thickest of brush-strokes – while Maurizio Muraro blusters and booms characterfully as the Leporello-ish manservant Bonifacio. Rising young conductor Daniele Rustioni shapes an affectionate and lightfooted account of the score, deploying some lovely solo woodwind textures (skittish flutes for Bonifacio, melancholic oboes for Nelly’s Romanza Dopo l’oscuro…

July 7, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Carl Heinrich Graun Opera Arias (Julia Lezhneva, Concerto Köln/Mikhail Antonenko)

Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759) shared Hasse’s popular acclaim and fondness for effervescent coloratura. Unlike Hasse, however, his music has remained confined to the archives, and it has fallen to Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva to dust it off. The arias here – world premieres all, save one – make a startlingly strong case for Graun’s music in all its exhilarating virtuosity and emotional variety. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Lezhneva, whose advocacy is blighted by technical problems. Something has gone badly wrong with this voice. Back in 2010, aged just 21, Lezhneva had a winning combination of purity and agility, and a lovely ease to her production. But vocal quirks and an increasingly manufactured delivery have crystallised into a voice that has retained agility, but at the cost of power and tonal control. Lezhneva now sounds like a precocious boy-treble – light and nimble, but snatching at top notes, swooping through intervals, blurting through legato passages. A shame, as there’s some thrilling music, stylishly performed by the exemplary Concerto Köln. Graun’s two styles – poised and proto-galant in ballads, outdoing even Vinci for brilliance in the stormy numbers – make for a disc of contrasts. There’s simple beauty in…

June 9, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Arias (Aida Garifullina, ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien/Cornelius Meister)

Operalia winner Aida Garifullina was signed to an exclusive recording contract by Decca back in 2015. It has taken a while, but now, with the release of her self-titled debut album – an exquisite selection of 19th-century songs, arias and folk-lullabies – we can finally hear why. The Russian lyric soprano has a wonderful technical ease which, coupled with a full, even tone, promises much for the future. But, in case you’re judging a singer by her repertoire, it’s worth pointing out that this disc doesn’t tell the whole story. Glancing down the generous programme from Juliette’s Je veux vivre to the Bell Song from Lakmé and the Queen of Shemakha’s two arias from The Golden Cockerel, you’d imagine perhaps a lighter, higher voice than you actually get. It’s a sleight-of-hand that’s far from unpleasant. Transposed down a tone, the Delibes gains in resonance and colour – these are bells of burnished gold rather than silver – and while Garifullina’s Juliette feels more poised society hostess than love-struck innocent, she’s one you’d clear your schedule for. Coloratura showpieces aside, the bulk of the disc comprises Russian repertoire, much of it glancing to the East and drawing on the soprano’s Tatar…

May 12, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Poulenc: Sacred choral works (The Sixteen/Harry Christophers)

How do you take your Poulenc? I only ask because, conveniently, The Sixteen have recorded a lot of the repertoire on their latest disc before, and their thinking has changed dramatically in the 30-year gap. The contrast between the 1990 Figure Humaine (Virgin Classics, now Erato 5624312) and the newly released Francis Poulenc: Choral Music (CORO) is striking – neither an improvement nor the reverse, simply two very different approaches to the composer’s sacred music. Poulenc’s journey to faith was a swift and dramatic one. The turning point is usually placed in 1936, when two separate events together propelled the composer into a new state of mind. The sudden and violent death of his friend, composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in a car accident prompted a visit to the small chapel at Rocamadour, where a mystical experience restored the Catholicism of his childhood. He immediately began work on a sacred piece – the Litanies à la Vierge Noir – taking his first steps in a genre that would become a constant throughout his life. The sound-world of Figure Humaine is one of gauzy, glossy beauty – a Mannerist vision of a heaven that’s all soft-focus loveliness and elegance. These are performances that…

May 5, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Farinelli – A Portrait (Ann Hallenberg, Les Talens Lyriques/Rousset)

It was the soundtrack to 1994 film Farinelli that put Les Talens Lyriques on the musical map over two decades ago. Now Christophe Rousset and his musicians mark their 25th anniversary by coming full circle, with an album of arias associated once again with the 18th century’s star castrato. But Farinelli is now well-trodden ground. Vivica Genaux, David Hansen and Philippe Jaroussky are just the most recent singers to lay claim to this repertoire on disc, so is there really a need for another homage? There are two strong arguments in this disc’s favour. In Ann Hallenberg, Rousset has a collaborator whose agility, power, and range of vocal colour is singular – capable of inhabiting both of Farinelli’s contrasting musical personalities. The project is also particularly canny in its repertoire choices, rejecting the usual single-composer route in favour of a broad selection of musical highlights from, not only Handel and Porpora, but also Leo, Hasse, Giacomelli and even Farinelli’s own composer brother. The result is a disc full of musical drama, heightened by a live recording originally made in 2011 at the Bergen International Festival. After a slightly slow start in Riccardo Broschi’s handsome, but pedestrian Son qual nave and…

April 26, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Distant Light (Renée Fleming, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic/Oramo)

Renée Fleming is no stranger to crossover. America’s favourite soprano has dabbled in rock music (2010’s Dark Hope), jazz (2005’s Haunted Heart), even duetted with Michael Bolton. But, until now, these have remained off-duty projects, separate from her official operatic identity. But in Distant Light she brings two worlds together, combining covers of Björk songs with music by Barber and Anders Hillborg in a recording that might just offer a vision of things to come in the classical music business. This feels like a coherent and convincing recital programme, tipping naturally from Barber’s hazy vision of pre-lapsarian America into Hillborg’s luminous sonic landscapes before casting off the classical anchor and drifting out into Björk’s broad lakes of sound and texture, beautifully reimagined in Hans Ek’s arrangements. Fleming still has one of the loveliest voices in the business, and that blooming tone is celebrated not only in the Barber but in Hillborg’s settings of poems by Mark Strand, former US Poet Laureate, which eschew the composer’s signature massive soundscapes for gentler, more intricate textures (lovingly performed here by Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic). If the tone feels more manufactured in the three Björk tracks, it’s not unpleasantly so. Together they…

March 22, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Pergolesi: Stabat Mater (Sona Yoncheva, Karine Deshayes, Ensemble Amarillis)

Once the remit of boy choristers and early music specialists only, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater has evolved into a star vehicle – a marketable foray into the baroque for major labels. Emma Kirkby and James Bowman led the way (Decca) and more recently Philippe Jaroussky and Julia Lezhneva (Erato). Now it’s the turn of Sony’s new leading lady, Sonya Yoncheva, joined by French mezzo Karine Deshayes and period band Ensemble Amarillis.   Both singers began in this repertoire, but both have moved beyond it on the opera stage; Yoncheva recently debuted as Norma and Deshayes has sung Carmen. It shows. While each phrases sensitively, the idiom is now Pergolesi by way of Verdi, with plenty of colouring outside the vocal lines. The effect is by no means unpleasant – old-fashioned, perhaps, but venison-rich and deliciously fleshy. If these anachronistic performances had been paired with a contemporary orchestra it might have worked. As it is, Yoncheva in particular seems to struggle to sing down to her period accompanists, and occasionally pitch wavers. Ensemble Amarillis takes centre-stage for Mancini’s rather anonymous Sonata in G Minor for recorder (co-director Heloise Gaillard the elegant soloist) and a bittersweet Concerto Grosso by Durante. Neat performances, but…

March 10, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Fin de siècle (Lawrence Power, Simon Crawford-Phillips)

If the violin is the tempestuous, attention-hogging soprano of the string world, the viola is the mezzo – gently melancholic, often found lurking in the shadows just beyond the violin’s spotlight. With this album, Lawrence Power asks a question: what would happen if the viola took centre-stage, stepping forward not just for high-minded sonatas and concertos but for precisely the kind of bravura concert pieces so beloved by violinists?   The answer may not offer the most satisfying recital programme, but it does shed light on some little-known and still-less-often performed repertoire, giving the character-actor of the string family a bold new starring role in the process. Glance down the repertoire list for Fin de Siècle and you get a thrillingly wide-angle view on a period of French music too often distilled down to just Debussy and Ravel, with maybe a smattering of Chausson if you’re lucky. Henri Büsser, Georges Hüe, Léon Honnoré, Lucien Durosoir – the names are as fragrant as their music, whether it’s Büsser’s episodic Appassionato – an ear-seizing opener that packs both high-wire angst and reflective ennui into its barely five-minute span – Hüe’s moody sonata-in-miniature Thème Varié, with its wistful theme and highly characterised sequence…

March 3, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Revive (Elīna Garanča)

Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča’s voice has only been growing in power and weight since she first came onto the scene in 2001, unaccountably missing out on the top prize at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Now, several albums later and with many role successes at the Met and Royal Opera under her belt, she returns with a new recording and a new sound. Well, perhaps not entirely new. Garancˇa has been heading towards this heavier repertoire for a while, trading her signature bel canto for Verdi, verismo and the swoonier French 19th-century repertoire. Scenes from Samson et Dalila and Werther are inevitable, but arias for Eboli, Santuzza and Didon (let alone Marina’s Skuchno Marine… from Boris Godunov) feel more exploratory, more like first steps in a new journey. No Amneris or Azucena yet, but Garanča’s programme note makes clear that it’s only a matter of time. The theme underpinning this wide-ranging collection of scenes and arias is an interesting one: strong women at moments of crisis. It’s not a concept that reduces very tidily to a tagline, but musically it amounts to an album of beautifully managed contradictions. Garanča finds the girlish frailty in Santuzza as well as…

January 18, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Rubbra: Choral Works (The Sixteen)

Edmund Rubbra is a composer who has faded from English musical history, written out of a narrative that jumps straight from Vaughan Williams and Holst to Britten and Walton. But this release from The Sixteen is a defiant and overdue attempt to rewrite that history, to establish Rubbra where he belongs, as one of the most distinctive harmonic voices of his generation – not the conservative throwback he has been painted, but a composer for whom the possibilities of tonality were far from exhausted. That voice might emerge most emphatically in Rubbra’s 11 symphonies, but his choral works distil their harmonic language into something cleaner, more concise. The sonic imagination here roams widely, from the craggy, sharp-edged beauty of the Tenebrae Motets to the gauzy clouds of modal richness established by the two choirs of the Missa Cantuariensis and the lightly-worn contrapuntal skill of Vain Wits and Except the Lord. This music gives little away on the page – its impact is all in the pacing and careful textural balance of performance. Harry Christophers deploys his singers with care, ensuring absolute vertical clarity and balance, but also a horizontal flow that propels music whose organic, evolving structures can easily become…