Philip Clark


June 16, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bernstein: Symphonies Nos 1 and 2 (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop)

Bernstein recorded his Jeremiah Symphony twice (with Jennie Tourel and Christa Ludwig) and his Age of Anxiety four times (once with Philippe Entremont, twice with Lukas Foss and a filmed performance with Krystian Zimerman) and you might be forgiven for assuming that the best anybody else could likely offer is Lenny-lite; re-interpretations of Bernstein’s own interpretations overriding the necessity to take a fresh look at his scores. And that is largely what the likes of Leonard Slatkin and Andrew Litton have offered. The presence of Bernstein feels just too big to ignore and their recordings pay dewy-eyed homage to their hero, gone but never forgotten. Marin Alsop belongs to that same generation of American conductors and, like Slatkin and Litton, she beat the inevitable path to Bernstein’s door and has since chosen to embrace the legacy of being a ‘Bernstein pupil’: when interviewers have finished with those inevitable questions about her gender, Bernstein is invariably next on their list. But then you hear Alsop’s approach to the Jeremiah and Age of Anxiety symphonies and can only marvel at how far she moves the music, and the debate surrounding it, forward. This is Bernstein for our times. The Jeremiah Symphony was…

April 21, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Liszt: Transcendental Etudes (Kirill Gerstein)

If you’ve worn out your copy of Georges Cziffra playing Liszt’s Transcendental Studies – and why wouldn’t you, because he da man – and are in the market for a newer model, should you direct your hard-earned cash towards Daniil Trifonov on Deutsche Grammophon or Kirill Gerstein on Myrios? Both are newly released and attracting praise like superlatives are about to outlawed by presidential executive order. Like everything Trifonov touches, his Transcendental Studies are proudly personal statements and wilfully so on occasion – witness, for example, the roof-rocking intensity of the fourth study, Mazeppa, where the volatile harmony is allowed to churn up the structure, and the ‘recitativo’ section of the coda plays out as something approaching a mad-scene. Gerstein – who plays the definitive 1852 version of Liszt’s Twelve Etudes – sits more obviously in a tradition that stretches back to Cziffra. Much has been written about how Gerstein’s background in jazz lends his performance an improvisational, power-to-the-moment flow. But despite his studies on the jazz course at Berklee and mentoring by jazz vibraphone guru Gary Burton, I’m not sure I hear it like that. At every turn, Gerstein peels the minutiae’s minutiae out from Liszt’s notation. The spread…

February 16, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Volume 3 (Jean-Efflam Bavouzet)

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet has arranged his cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas chronologically in order of composition, meaning this final instalment encompasses the biggest of Beethoven’s hitters: the Appassionata, Hammerklavier and Opus 109, 110 and 111 included. I think it’s fair to say that Bavouzet’s approach has divided opinion. If Artur Schnabel or Emil Gilels are your go-to Beethoven pianists, then Bavouzet’s lean-and-mean textures – apparently achieved with a minimum of pedal, and fingers so transparent that they must be see-through – locate other impulses inside this music which might not appeal. Known primarily as an interpreter of Debussy and Ravel, Bavouzet views Beethoven as not just a progressive, but also a Modernist. This Beethoven is determinately non-sentimental (as already demonstrated by Bavouzet’s chilling, near-dystopian take on the Moonlight Sonata in volume 2 of his cycle) with a knack of clarifying form by emphasising moments of fracture. Bavouzet clearly follows a lineage of French Beethoven that begins with Yves Nat and hits peak chichi streamlined Modernism as Pierre-Laurent Aimard records the concertos with Harnoncourt. Except that Bavouzet remains his own man. So much to enjoy here, so much that makes me want to listen again. Perhaps perversely I began my deep dive…

January 18, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: Goldberg Variations (Angela Hewitt)

Angela Hewitt wouldn’t be the first Canadian pianist to record Bach’s Goldberg Variations twice and, like Glenn Gould’s second performance, Hewitt takes longer over her remake. Her first, recorded in 1999, had critics throwing superlatives around like confetti: “If you only buy one Bach album in this anniversary year, let it be this one. A desert-island disc!” said the man in London’s Sunday Times. But my tropical island might not seem the perfect paradise if Hewitt’s was the only set of Goldbergs on offer. In a world where John Butt exists and Mahan Esfahani has just recorded an exceptionally nuanced performance on harpsichord, complete with an appropriately juicy tuning temperament, it feels like Hewitt is trying to catch an argument that has long since moved on. Of course, it’s that very dependability that will endear this disc to many and, on its own terms, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Hewitt’s performance. Eyebrows might be raised when she ignores some repeats during the opening Aria – her first version was branded with the strapline “Includes all repeats!” – but otherwise her immaculate voice-leading, rapid-fire articulation and slipstream rhythmic momentum keep the flame burning. Hewitt’s Fazioli is lighter-on-its-feet than the Steinway…

October 28, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Bacewicz: String Quartets

And then there were three cycles – the Silesian Quartet’s version of Polish composer Graz˙yna Bacewicz’s seven string quartets following on the heels of the Amar Corde Quartet (on Acte Préalable) and the Lutosławksi Quartet (on Naxos), and securing her reputation as one of the best-known unknown composers around. Bacewicz died in 1969 and her quartet cycle journeys from makings of tonality that are known towards a hard-fought for personal harmonic wizardry that embraces 12-tone thinking without being overly concerned with ‘correct’ 12-tone technique. Secreted kernels of melody appear discreetly from behind shadowy, shuffling textures to anticipate the soundworld of latter-day Bartók quartets – and even Luigi Nono. Bacewicz’s cycle is noticeably more consistent and chancey than Shostakovich’s, but how depressing to read elsewhere mantras about Bacewicz the “female composer”. Music as great as this ought to leave crude gender categorising far behind. “Music as great as this ought to leave crude gender categorising far behind“ The pivot is the Fifth Quartet. Written in 1955 as she was recovering from serious injury sustained during a car crash, Bacewicz has developed her language from the broadly Neo-Classical turn-of-phrase of the Fourth Quartet – for which please don’t read Stravinskian pastiche –…

October 28, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Ravel: Complete Orchestral Works

Lionel Bringuier’s recordings of Ravel’s piano concertos with Yuja Wang were issued last year, and a second listening confirms the Wang approach has much going for it. Her view of the G Major Concerto soft pedals Ravel’s borrowings from jazz, the opening movement running with the jazzy energies but ditching the stylistic hooks, while her second movement refuses to collapse towards sentimentality. The Left Hand Concerto accrues momentum and dark-hued power, even if Bringuier saunters past some orchestral nuances – compare Boulez’s highlighting of the opening contrabassoon grumbles. But that is perhaps a temporary oversight. Boléro – taken at quite a lick – is satisfyingly painterly, the Tonhalle’s nuanced shades and textures, underpinned by a tightly marshalled snare drum, shining a light through Ravel’s experiment in orchestration without music. La Valse also benefits from the same intensity of colouristic framing, and the surge towards structural fragmentation flirts with unashamed savagery. The whimsy of Mother Goose (complete) and miniatures like Pavane pour une Infante Défunte and Alborada del Gracioso is well judged, a pity though that Ray Chen hams his way through Tzigane. Daphnis et Chloé is a bit wide-angle camera for my taste, a repeat of my misgivings about Bringuier’s…

October 4, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Violin Sonatas Volume 1

Violinist Alina Ibragimova and her accompanist Cédric Tiberghien are a class act – witness their 2013 album of Schubert’s complete works for violin and piano, also on Hyperion – but this set of seven very early Mozart violin sonatas, written in between nappy changes presumably, rarely rise beyond the level of a composer expertly, and rather dogmatically, applying the rules who has yet to grasp that the whole point of composing is to put those same rules under the microscope with a view to learning how to make them bend. Still, Ibragimova and Tiberghien couldn’t turn in a lacklustre performance if they tried, and after experiencing this fine duo tackling Schubert, hearing them weave a degree of wonder through such low key material fills me with even greater respect for their interpretive clout. They tread a finely judged line between keeping alert to young whippersnapper Wolfgang’s harmonic language, while avoiding their knowledge of his later harmonic wizardry lest it (mis)inform the naïveté of this music. Ibragimova plays with childlike wonder – but there’s never a trace of sentimentalised whimsy. Sprawling over two discs, here is a lot of Mozart, much of it interchangeable. For my money Sonata No 27 in…

August 30, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Symphonies (Berlin Philharmonic/Sir Simon Rattle)

And now for something completely different? By general agreement, Rattle’s 2003 cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic was inconsistent and hastily packaged, the conscious Haydnesque jollities of the First and Second symphonies – clearly Rattle had been listening to John Eliot Gardiner and Frans Brüggen – rubbing awkwardly against visions of the Third, Fifth and Ninth swept along by broad sweeps of Romanticism, like Rattle had also swallowed huge chunks of Wilhelm Furtwängler. Rattle is on record as saying that Furtwängler’s 1942 recording of the Choral Symphony epitomises everything genuinely great about the Berlin Philharmonic, its string sound in particular. And here’s the great paradox of this fresh Beethoven cycle, recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic in October 2015 – a decade on from his first attempt, Rattle has managed to make the yin and yang of HIP and a Romantic underbelly coexist and these Berlin Philharmonic readings sound less obviously indebted to its own heritage. “You can try to make [Beethoven] agree with himself when often he’s fighting with himself,” Rattle says in the bonus documentary included as part of the package. “But I have the feeling that the more plain-spoken this music is, the better it is.”…

July 29, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Schumann: Complete Symphonic Works (WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Holliger)

Editor’s Choice, Orchestral – July 2016 Back in 2013 oboist-composer-conductor Heinz Holliger, in partnership with the excellent WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln and featuring an august cast of instrumental soloists – violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and pianist Dénes Várjon included – initiated a project to record Robert Schumann’s complete orchestral music. The sixth and final volume contrasts Schumann’s first tentative stab at a symphony – the two-movement torso Zwickauer Symphony – with tautly conceived late-period overtures from the ever popular Manfred to the rarer Julius Caesar and Bride of Messina. No man or woman alive knows more about the inner-workings of Schumann’s music than Holliger, but his cycle hasn’t always been consistent in the listening. It was Holliger’s bad luck that his first three volumes were released just as Simon Rattle, Robin Ticciati and Yannick Nézet-Séguin released their own symphony cycles and DG sneaked out Abbado’s second. Compared to the lavishly nuanced detail of Rattle and Ticciati’s poetic intensity, Holliger generates a plainer surface – the Second Symphony’s Scherzo lacks Rattle’s skittish momentum and his reading of the Rhenish is no match for Ticciati’s unhinged volatility. But the weight of Holliger’s scholarly learning can’t be dismissed. Holliger thinks that one key towards informed…

May 13, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Haydn: String Quartets Op. 76 (Doric String Quartet)

The Doric Quartet, operating out of London, challenge all our assumptions about Papa Joe’s string quartets, telling us, “We know Haydn can sound like this, but have you ever considered it could sound like that too?” Haydn’s Opus 76 was the last extended set of string quartets he wrote, contemporary in his output with The Creation and the London Symphonies, music that would distil an entire lifetime of creative discovery into structures where the genuinely sublime felt at ease with the authentically bawdy. If you prefer your Haydn performed within carefully delineated ‘Classical’ limits, then the Doric’s re-examination of the DNA of these late-period scores might represent too much of a walk on the wild side. The quartet splash around wideband dynamics and proto-expressionistic timbres with such obvious abandon we are reminded that Haydn would not only provide a seedbed of ideas for Mozart and Beethoven, but that stirrings of Schubert, Bruckner and Second Viennese School thinking, too, are to be found within the thrusting loins of this music. Op. 76, No 1 gives notice of how every detail will be up for renegotiation. Notice cellist John Myerscough’s free-spirited phrasing during the first movement’s opening theme; but also how the…

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