Tony Way

June 19, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Grainger: Works for large chorus (MSO, Davis)

It’s the story of a lovely lady, who was bringing up just one boy on her own … Well, not really. The story of Rose Grainger and her precocious son Percy has more in common with Fifty Shades of Grey than The Brady Bunch. Abandoned by a drunken, syphilitic husband, the domineering mother home-schooled her son, introducing him to a wide range of literature, including the Nordic legends that influenced his music so deeply. By age 16, it appears that Percy had developed a taste for sadomasochism and as he grew
 up his mother did her best to stymie her son’s budding romantic relationships. The suggestion that she was incestuously involved with her son played tragically with her already fragile mental health and
 she jumped to her death out an office block window. It’s no surprise,
then, that Grainger 
remained obsessed
 with his mother for the
 rest of his life. The works recorded here (most for the first time) bear her imprint. Marching Song of Democracy is dedicated to her and celebrates their “adoration” of Walt Whitman, while Thanksgiving Song extols “womankind’s contribution to terrestrial immortality”. Scored for wordless chorus and large orchestra, these works reveal Grainger’s masterly orchestration and questing…

June 5, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Mendelssohn: Violin & Piano Concerto, Octet (ACO, Tognetti)

Perennially young at heart, the ACO has 
just the right touch with these two works written while Mendelssohn was in his teenage years. While the latter of these works, the Octet is well known, the Concerto in D Minor for Violin, Piano and Strings was written when the composer was just fourteen and deserves a wider audience. Exhibiting the influence of his onetime teacher Johann Nepomuk Hummel, the concerto is full of the flashy and, at times, dreamy music that precocious
 child prodigies such as the 
composer would have enjoyed playing. Mendelssohn wrote the piece to play with his older friend and violin teacher, Eduard Ritz. Russian pianist Polina Leschenko, who toured the work with the ACO last year, is a perfect match for Tognetti. Together they bring all the necessary effervescence and vitality 
to the score with its moments of devil-may- care gypsy music, gentle melodic filigree and dramatic technical display. In all this they are splendidly supported by the ACO which (once again) proves an ideal accompanist. Written just two years after the enjoyable, if somewhat derivative, Concerto, the astonishingly mature and original Octet was a gift to Ritz on his 23rd birthday. (Lucky man!) In addition to…

March 7, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Fauré: Requiem (Tenebrae); Bach: Ciacona (Nikolitch)

What is it about the key of D Minor? Think of the mighty Toccata and Fugue in that key we ascribe to Bach, or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. There seems to be something monumental embedded in the DNA of this key that speaks to us of life and death, of the meaning of our existence. Enterprising programmers at the City of London Festival in 2011 used D Minor to forge an interesting musical link between Bach’s solo Violin Partita No 2 and the Fauré Requiem. Obviously the Requiem is
 concerned with death, but research presented with this disc suggests 
that the outsize Ciacona with which Bach concluded the Partita is a memorial for his first wife Maria Barbara, who died suddenly at Cöthen in 1720 while Bach was away with his patron, Prince Leopold in Karlsbad. Professor Helga Thoene further suggests that the whole partita is based on a series of chorales (inaudible to the listener) and has the secret theme of death and resurrection. To prove this theory, violinist Gordan Nikolitch performs the Partita interleaved with apposite chorales sung by Tenebrae.
 In the concluding Ciacona the forces join together to create an atmospheric, if not wholly convincing musical hybrid. The…

January 30, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Schubert: String Quintet (Takács Quartet)

Simply put, this is a superb disc. Artists and repertoire are a perfect match – and what repertoire! Schubert’s Quintet is one of those pieces where every idea is musical gold and the juxtaposition of those ideas creates a totally captivating masterpiece. No matter that the work lasts some 55 minutes: chronological time seems hardly to register at all. In fact, there are moments (like the outer sections of the second-movement Adagio) where time seems utterly suspended and we are given a glimpse of eternity. This extraordinary outpouring from the very end of Schubert’s all too brief life is given a deeply thoughtful and beautifully polished reading by the Takács with guest cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, who fits seamlessly into the musical fabric. Underpinning the many glories of this recording is an exceptional sense of ensemble that generates the most finely gradated variations in timbre and texture. (The first two movements abound in wonderful examples of subtle colouring.) From the very first chord that emerges from sonic darkness, it is clear that the players will not shy away from probing the complexity of emotion that Schubert presents in this piece. The constantly changing light and shade of the music is movingly…

October 5, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: CHOPIN & MENDELSSOHN: Cello Sonatas

A new disc by Pieter Wispelwey is always a cause for great rejoicing and this one is no exception. I doubt that Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No 2 (in D, Op 58) has ever sounded as joyous and carefree as it does here. In the opening movement the players have an unbridled enthusiasm that at first surprises but then wins the listener over. The delicate wit of the ensuing Allegretto scherzando with its pizzicato passages is perfectly realised and is admirably balanced by the plangent Adagio. Mendelssohn’s Song without Words for cello and piano is offered as another example of Wispelwey’s superb expressiveness, while arrangements of three of Chopin’s waltzes by the Russian virtuoso Karl Davydov, including the famous Minute Waltz, show off the cellist’s quicksilver dexterity and amazing lightness of touch. That Chopin’s Cello Sonata caused the composer so much creative grief is scarcely apparent in this ardent performance. Here, as in the Mendelssohn, the total abandonment to the music’s high romanticism results in utterly magnetic music-making. In particular, the Scherzo stands out as a compelling blend of drama and lyricism. Giacometti’s use of an 1837 Érard piano in conjunction with Wispelwey’s 1760 Guadagnini cello adds further authenticity to these…

June 14, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: RACHMANINOV: Symphony No 3, Rhapsody (Yevgeny Sudbin, Singapore SO)

These two major works from Rachmaninov’s last decade form a substantial and varied program, given here in excellent performances and recorded in very vivid Super Audio format. Thirty-something Russian virtuoso Yevgeny Sudbin gives a dashing account of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, investing the work with all the requisite drama, colour and wit. Lan Shui and his Singapore musicians are totally committed to the cause and support Sudbin with excellent ensemble. Rachmaninov’s orchestration is brilliantly highlighted by the engineering to the point that everything is very present, and this listener at least lost some sense of sonic perspective on standard audio equipment.Doubtless playback in surround sound would yield added dimensions. Don’t let this caveat, however, deter you from enjoying Sudbin’s considerable artistry. Mention “Rach Three” to music lovers and they will immediately think of the Third Piano Concerto rather than the Third Symphony. Rachmaninov’s symphonies have always lived in the shadow of his piano concertos. Completed a few years after the Paganini variations, the composer’s last symphony did not receive a rapturous welcome and at least one commentator has referred to it as “a sad failure”. Despite all of this, the work does have a voluptuous art deco…

May 17, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: French Impressions: Ravel, Saint-Saens, Franck Violin Sonatas (Joshua Bell, Jeremy Denk)

Joshua Bell’s first disc of sonatas with Sony is well worth the wait. At its centre is the ever-popular sonata by Franck, alongside works by Saint-Saëns and Ravel. Both Bell and his accompanist friend Jeremy Denk revel in the ever-changing impressionistic colours of harmony and timbre that this repertory evokes and demands. There is plenty of Gallic flair in the Franck, and the tension between stasis and forward movements is finely judged, resulting in some exhilarating climaxes. The interweaving of major and minor elements in the famous finale are beautifully pointed by the violin and expertly underpinned by the piano. Bell’s judicious but unashamed use of sweet tone and sweeping portamenti is entirely appropriate. Saint-Saëns’s sonata is immediately appealing, with an imposing opening movement full of fire and passion succeeded by some improvisatory languor and concluding with an elegant, high-spirited finale with a dash of gypsy fiddling thrown in. By contrast, the worldly sophistication of Ravel gives Bell a chance to display some other colours, especially in the Blues movement where the violin is by turns banjo strummer or jazz chanteuse. Bell and Denk face steep competition in the Franck; this splendid trio of sonatas makes a winning proposition.

May 8, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: GRIEG: Holberg Suite, String Quartet (ACO/Tognetti)

Richard Tognetti and the ACO are in sparkling form in this wonderfully enjoyable program of Grieg. The major work here is Tognetti’s skilful transcription of String Quartet No 1 in G minor, Op 27, the composer’s only extant complete work in the genre. Digging into the almost Piazzolla-like rhythms of the opening movement, the band delivers a zesty account of this colourful score. The contrasting episodes of the Romanze and the Intermezzo are handled deftly, while the concluding Saltarello has an almost manic intensity.  By way of contrast we are then offered the Two Elegiac Melodies, Op 34. These popular but all too brief works are played superbly; their aching melancholy lit by beauty of tone and delicacy of ensemble. Erotikk from the Lyric Pieces is a scintillating miniature, more nostalgic than sensual, sensitively arranged by Tognetti for solo violin and orchestra. What better way to finish than with the Holberg Suite? At pains to preserve the dance-like quality of Grieg’s neo-Baroque masterpiece, the orchestra achieves a perfect blend of energy and lightness throughout. Admirable rhythmic acuity characterises the Praeludium, the courtly intimacy of the Sarabande contrasts well with the crisply accented Gavotte. The fervent Air, with its pulsing accompaniment,…

April 18, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: GRIEG, LISZT: Piano Concertos (Stephen Hough, Bergen PO/Litton)

It was only a matter of time before Stephen Hough, already the soloist of highly acclaimed Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky concerto cycles, added his name to the list of those who have recorded three of the most popular piano concertos of all time. Can any new insights be garnered here? With Hough, nothing is ever formulaic. His most successful offering is the Second Concerto of Liszt. Andrew Litton constantly propels the music forward, while allowing for plenty of poetry to emerge in the slow movement. Put next to Richter’s mercurial 1961 accounts of the Liszt concertos with the London Symphony under Kirill Kondrashin, Hough seems rather earthbound at the start of the First Concerto. Things improve as the work progresses though, with his beautifully limpid slow movement and a strong finale. Grieg’s hometown orchestra serves him well in his concerto, with some spirited brass playing and refined string work. Hough is quite attentive to detail, but never loses sight of the bigger Romantic picture. This is an account free of gimmicks that gives a wonderful balance of introversion and extroversion. In an overcrowded field, this disc may not be quite at the top of the pile, but there is still a…

February 29, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: BERLIOZ: Grande Messe des Morts (Gabrieli Consort and Players; Wrocław PO and Choir/McCreesh)

The “sonic spectacular” is back, if Paul McCreesh has his way. The veteran of so many wonderful early music extravaganzas has now parted amicably with Deutsche Grammophon after a 15-year relationship. The next phase of his artistic endeavour will see him set his own artistic agenda, underpinned by his fascination with large-scale works and historically informed performance values. The first fruits of this new phase are truly mindblowing. In 2010 McCreesh assembled some 400 players and singers in Wrocław, Poland to record the Berlioz Requiem. Meticulously following the composer’s directions which call for, amongst other things, a chorus of at least 200, 16 timpani, 18 double basses and four additional brass groups, McCreesh has produced a recording of jaw-dropping power and sublime beauty. While the thunderous, apocalyptic vision of the Tuba mirum is absolutely awe-inspiring, much of the work is more intimate in scope, and it is in these sections that we see the composer’s mastery of musical colour. Robert Murray might not be the most distinguished tenor to have sung the solo in the Sanctus, but at least he respects its rapt, devotional character. Mary Magdalene Church, Wrocław provides an excellent venue for this work, imparting atmospheric resonance that…

February 23, 2012
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUBERT: Piano Sonatas, Impromptus (Paul Lewis)

Comprising both smaller-scale works as well as three sonatas, this generous collection shows the versatility and mastery of Paul Lewis in Schubert’s piano music. While the Impromptus D899 are among Schubert’s best-known instrumental works, Lewis allows us to hear them as if for the first time. Each is carefully shaped and interesting details are pointed out along the way, without ever losing sense of the melodic and dramatic arc of the whole. Full of references to Schubert’s song style, the late, lesser-known Klavierstücke D946 are ultimately valedictory in tone and Lewis gives them a marvelous rendition. Less easy for some to enjoy are the sonatas, with their emphasis on thematic development at the expense of structure. Lewis’s strong characterisation of successive ideas together with an uncanny sense of musical perspective allows him to guide the listener convincingly through Schubert’s musical arguments. In particular we can delight in the variety of moods Lewis creates in the scherzo of the D-Major Sonata D850 and the laconic humour he brings to its finale. By contrast, the opening of the G-Major Sonata D894 is invested with an admirable quiet devotion. The unfinished sonata Reliquie D840 seems a strange work on first acquaintance, but in…

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