Tony Way

July 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Elgar: King Olaf (Bergen Philharmonic/Davis)

★★★★☆ Editor’s Choice: Vocal & Chroal, June 2015 So obsessed were the white anglo-saxon protestant citizens of late Victorian England with the “punishment of wickedness and vice, and the maintenance of true religion and virtue” (to use Thomas Cranmer’s phrase) that they were content even for a talented Roman Catholic like Edward Elgar to feed them stories that reinforced the prevailing ‘muscular Christianity’. St George and the dragon was an obvious subject, not least when Queen Victoria celebrated her diamond jubilee in 1897. For The Banner of Saint George Elgar was provided with poetry that was far from accomplished, but he used his considerable skill in orchestration to create evocative soundscapes, especially as he depicts the slaying of the dragon. On the other hand, there are times (as in the epilogue) when I can’t help wondering whether Elgar has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. In any event, Sir Andrew Davis and his forces give a rousing and fully committed account of a work that was to become immensely popular in the composer’s lifetime. Clearly rescuing damsels in distress appealed to the choral societies of the time. Of far greater interest is a work published the year before: Scenes…

April 26, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Music for Remembrance (Westminster Abbey Choir/O’Donnell)

While commemorations of the Word War I centenary continue, James O’Donnell and his Westminster Abbey forces perform music associated mainly with other conflicts to remind us of the horror and folly of war.  Taking up the lion’s share of this disc is Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem in its medium-sized incarnation for choir, orchestra, organ and soloists. Hyperion’s engineers have done a splendid job in balancing the relatively small choir against the orchestra in the abbey’s cavernous acoustics. Duruflé’s sincerity shines through his heartfelt score and O’Donnell elicits a very moving performance from all concerned, including soloists Christine Rice and Roderick Williams. English composers feature in the rest of the program. Vaughan Williams’s Lord, thou hast been our refuge is a poignant reaction to his first-hand experience of the so-called Great War, while Howells’s Take him, earth, for cherishing evokes the tragedy of President Kennedy’s assassination. Philip Moore’s Three Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are thoughtful and effective settings of the German pacifist pastor who was executed by the Nazis. John Tavener’s The peace that surpasseth all understanding forms the powerful conclusion to the program. Commissioned by the Abbey to commemorate the fallen of both world wars, its final “Om” reminds us of…

April 11, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Pärt: Vocal Works (Layton)

This wide-ranging survey of Pärt’s choral music is the third disc of his music performed by Stephen Layton’s Polyphony. As with the other two recordings, the singers’ clarity and unanimity of tone confirm them as ideal interpreters of this music. An added attraction is that this program takes us to back to some of Pärt’s earliest choral writing: the austere Solfeggio of 1963. The haunting musical stasis of this piece belies its unswerving adherence to the rules of serialism. Seven years later Pärt’s setting of the Nicean Creed, Summa shows the composer emerging into his “tintinnabulist” period and embracing the so-called “holy minimalism” that has become a hallmark of his music.  Another movement charted by this disc is Pärt’s journey from the confines of Soviet-era Estonia into the freedom of the wider, multicultural world of the last quarter-century. The works recorded here demonstrate that Pärt’s style both transcends time and place, but is also influenced by people and history. Virgencita, a 2012 work receiving its first recording, celebrates the story of the apparition of the Virgin Mary at Guadalupe, Mexico and reflects both the tenderness and passion of its subject. The other first recording here is of Alleluia-Tropus (2008) which…

March 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Mahler: Lieder (Gustav Mahler Ensemble)

Mahler once claimed that knowledge of his songs was the key to understanding his symphonic output. In order to prove this Argentinian mezzo, Bernarda Fink does a wonderful service by offering this excellent conspectus of Mahler’s lieder with a variety of accompaniments. In addition to some of his early songs with piano, we are given the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in Schoenberg’s version for chamber ensemble and Mahler’s own orchestration of the Kindertotenlieder. Unfortunately there was only room for four of the five Rückert-Lieder, two of which are performed here with piano and two with orchestra. One of the constant delights of this disc is the way Fink always puts her deeply expressive instrument at the service of the text. Key words are subtly coloured and phrases exquisitely shaped. We hear this from the outset but especially so in the Songs of a Wayfarer. Schoenberg’s clever arrangement gives them an intimacy and edginess closer to the world of Weimar Republic cabaret. Two melancholy songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn set the stage for the Kindertotenlieder. Orozco-Estrada and his forces summon up Mahler’s vivid but tender soundworld with considerable empathy. We are deprived of the orchestra in two of the four Rückert-Lieder presented here. Going from piano to orchestra is like going…

March 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: The Merton Collection (Choir of Merton College)

Set up less than a decade ago, the choir of Merton College is a relative newcomer to Oxford’s choral life, but in its short existence it has punched well above its weight. Unsurprising perhaps, given that one of its directors is Peter Phillips. The Tallis Scholars which Phillips also directs have been recording in Merton chapel for years, taking advantage of its splendid acoustic.  To celebrate its 750th year the college has undertaken two visionary projects to support the choral foundation. The first is the installation of a superb new pipe organ. The second is the creation of the Merton Choirbook, a collection of music commissioned from composers from around the globe including a work by Melbourne composer, Christopher Willcock, whose Missa Brevis will be premiered later this year. This program of mainly a cappella music is mostly traditional Anglican fare enlivened with more recent works, including some from the Choirbook. All of the music is beautifully sung, whether it be favourites such as This is the record of John (Gibbons), Hear my prayer, O Lord (Purcell) or Valiant for Truth (Vaughan Williams). Amongst the new music, the Nunc dimittis from Eriks Ešenvalds’s evening canticles, James Lavino’s Beati quorum via…

July 21, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Tallis: Missa Puer natus est nobis (The Cardinall’s Musick)

Thomas Tallis was destined, as the old Chinese curse puts it, to live in interesting times. Luckily, for him and for us, he defied fate and kept his head joined to the rest of his body through many of England’s religious troubles. Andrew Carwood and his expert singers have produced an engaging program of works that reflect both the liturgical and musical diversity of the period.  At the centre of this disc is the imposing seven-voice Missa Puer natus est, which seems to have been written in the reign of Mary Tudor. While being based on the cantus firmus of the plainsong introit for Christmas, its lack of a high treble part and solo sections attest to the composer’s ability to adapt his craft to available forces (in this case, Philip II’s Chapel Royal).  On the other side of the ecclesiastical ledger, we are given a sonorous setting for lower voices of the Benedictus (Blessed be the Lord God of Israel) to be sung at Mattins according to Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. A Latin Magnificat (probably Tallis’s earliest surviving work) makes a fascinating contrast not only with the plainer English setting but with his later Catholic works. Two well…

July 21, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Debussy, Ravel: Arranged for organ (Idenstam)

It was a strange prospect to say the least; the whole of Debussy’s La mer (not to mention various Ravel orchestral works) on the organ. Even as an organist, I wondered whether there could be a transcriber, a player and an instrument to do due honour to such richly detailed and subtly orchestrated scores. Gunnar Idenstam, a Swedish concert organist and composer certainly gives it his best shot.  The organ of St Martin’s, Dudelange, Luxembourg is an excellent choice with its synthesis of the best of the French, German and English schools of organbuilding. The spatial disposition of the four-manuals in the clear but reverberant acoustic allows the all-important sense of orchestral background and foreground to be recreated.  Idenstam brings an excellent technique and a generous sense of drama to the task at hand. While the Debussy has many exciting moments, I couldn’t help feeling that in attempting to reflect the changing orchestration of the original somehow the transcription lacked cohesion and instead of a unified musical tableau I was listening to a succession of colourful moments. The shorter Ravel works fared better. Pavane pour une infante défunte is particularly effective and La valse along with two of the Valses…

June 15, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Holst: Orchestral Works (BBC Symphony Orchestra/Davis)

How good it is to have such excellent accounts of two major works for voice and orchestra by Holst. The first, dating from 1904 (and revised eight years later) is The Mystic Trumpeter, a setting of Walt Whitman featuring a soprano solo, and the second is the First Choral Symphony, a four-movement work with texts by Keats for soprano, chorus and orchestra.  This recording might have come to light some years ago were it not for the untimely death of Richard Hickox in 2008, who passed away just as the project was beginning. Andrew Davis has more than ably assumed Hickox’s mantle and with Susan Gritton (who had begun work with the late conductor) he invests these works with all the colour and drama they demand.  In The Mystic Trumpeter the overtly musical references of Whitman’s text help give shape and coherence to Holst’s musical language, allowing the composer to distance himself further from the Wagnerian idioms of which he was overly fond and edge closer to a unique personal style. The varied and often delicate nature of the orchestration allows a clear and effective presentation of Whitman’s paean to love, freedom and joy. Lasting just under 20 minutes, the…

June 11, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Pergolesi: Vocal Works (Lezhneva, Jaroussky, I Barocchisti/Fasolis)

French producer, Alain Lanceron’s decision to bring together Julia Lezhneva and Philippe Jaroussky in a recording of Pergolesi seems like a match made in heaven. Both singers have wowed Australian audiences in recent times: Jaroussky with his voice of velvet and dashing good looks, and Lezhneva with her range, technical prowess and elegance.  The pair work particularly well together in the Stabat Mater where there are frequent opportunities to match vocal colour and intensity. They are well supported by Diego Fasolis and his band who reinforce the varying moods of the plangent text without taking away from the distinguished vocal contributions.  Grander in scale are the two psalm settings, Laudate pueri and Confitebor. These festive works with their writing for chorus and larger orchestra allow the soloists to present their more operatic credentials. The Laudate is a well chosen vehicle for Lezhneva’s talents, allowing her to display her skill in coloratura runs and ornamentation over a fairly wide vocal range. Her delicate but expressive instrument is still in an early stage of development, and I look forward to hearing her in these works as her career progresses and her voice matures. The Confitebor provides a jolly conclusion to this enjoyable…

May 16, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Oratorio Arias (Davies, The King’s Consort/King)

The voice and artistry of Iestyn Davies has always been one of the treats I look forward to when another recording by the King’s Consort comes my way. Here, in a well-deserved accolade we have a disc where we can savour his music making at length – and it does not disappoint. Apart from being a conspectus of Handel’s astonishing dramatic range and technical prowess in the realm of the oratorio, it is also a treasure trove of delights for the alto voice.  Whether in the sober piety of O sacred oracles of truth from Belshazzar or the more bellicose Mighty love now calls to arm from Alexander Balus, Davies is totally in command of his material, spinning out beautifully formed musical phrases and displaying his deep love of the English language at every turn. This very well chosen program shows his honeyed tones in a variety of contrasted contexts. Amongst some of the highlights are the uplifting How can I stay when love invites from Esther, and the tender Mortals think that Time is sleeping from The Triumph of Time and Truth. A few well-chosen duets with Carolyn Sampson add to the pleasure. As much as this disc is…

May 15, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Mysteries of the Gregorian Chant (Singers of St Laurence/McEwan)

I’ve long admired and respected the work of Neil McEwan and his accomplished choir at Christ Church St Laurence in Sydney. This disc is a fine celebration of McEwan’s scholarly expertise in the area of Gregorian chant with his dedicated ‘chant schola’.  What makes this disc particularly interesting is the premiere recording of eight items from the Rimini Antiphonal, a 14th-century chant book housed in the State Library of New South Wales. McEwan transcribed these chants and prepared them for performance. Other chants from the regular plainsong repertory as well as three polyphonic motets and two chants by Hildegard of Bingen make for a pleasantly varied program. Performances are enhanced by the atmospheric but not overwhelmingly reverberant acoustic of the chapel at St Scholastica’s Convent, Glebe. McEwan elicits the necessary flexibility from his male singers in the chant. Their occasional bursts of vocal fervour are understandable. Robert White’s Christe qui lux es et dies, Taverner’s Dum transisset Sabbatum and Byrd’s Laetentur caeli provide an appropriate change of texture along the way. These motets are sung with clarity and precision. Hildegard’s chants, O tu suavissima virga and O eterne Deus add yet another dimension to the program. The addition of a…

April 20, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Rejoice, the Lord is king! (Westminster Abbey Choir/O’Donnell)

Although modern British society is these days avowedly multicultural and secular, it only takes a royal wedding or funeral for millions to tune in and get a dose of good old-fashioned Anglican culture. Arguably, the most memorable element of these services is the hymn singing, where the great and good let rip whilst the choir and organ contribute soaring descants. Such occasions are vividly evoked with this selection of favourites. Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of the Old Hundredth is an obvious curtain raiser and before we reach the rousing finale of Jerusalem, we encounter such beloved items as The Lord’s my shepherd (sung at the Queen’s wedding) and Love divine, all loves excelling in the fine arrangement O’Donnell made for the most recent royal wedding. The absence of a congregation allows for slightly faster tempos and more creative treatments than would otherwise be possible. One such example is Robert Quinney’s idiomatic arrangement of the title track. Quinney delights in adorning Handel’s tune with as many accented dissonances as possible. The result is delicious. I heard the voice of Jesus say and Let all mortal flesh keep silence also receive atmospheric renderings. As usual, O’Donnell draws the very best singing from his choristers…

April 17, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: CPE Bach: Württenmberg Sonatas (Esfahani)

Mahan Esfahani, the young Iranian-American harpsichordist, is becoming one of the most ardent promoters of the instrument today. After a formation that included studies with Australian harpsichordist, Peter Watchorn, he has been bringing the music to new audiences, including the first ever solo harpsichord recital presented at the BBC Proms in 2011. Esfahani is clearly captivated by these sonatas from one of the Bach clan’s most notable scions. Written just before Carl Philipp Emmanuel turned 30 and published in the year he married his wife, the sonatas are dedicated to one of his former students, the Duke of Württenmberg. They embody the marvellous (and mischievous) nonconformist musical attitudes of the age by juxtaposing seemingly random and unconnected passages as part of a whole. This presents the performer with numerous expressive possibilities as well as considerable interpretative challenges. Using a beautiful instrument (which includes an unusual four-foot “flute” register) based on the work of Michael Mietke (1671-1719), maker of harpsichords to the Berlin court, Esfahani delights in the extraordinary range of colour, texture and mood in these pieces. All is sensitively recorded by Hyperion’s engineers. Whether it is the caprice and operatic mock-seriousness that opens the Sonata in B Minor or the vocally inspired material of the Sonata in A…

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