Warwick Arnold

January 30, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten (Mariinsky, Gergiev)

Strauss and Hoffmansthal’s fantastic fairytale has a reputation as a brute to stage and while expensive, requiring a heavy-duty cast of singers to do it justice its heavy symbolism and Jungian archetypes, it’s a gift to directors who can give free rein to their imagination. Sadly, most try too hard to spell out the bafflingly symbolic as seems to be the case in Jonathan Kent’s literal production which serves the human aspects well but is rather ho-hum when it comes to the other-worldly; Barak and his wife live in a squalid Laundromat while the inhabitants of the Spirit-World gad about in a colourful Russo-Oriental pastiche.  The Mariinsky singers have the necessary heft but also a great deal of Slavic wobble. Best of the bunch were the Olgas Sergeeva and Savova as the Dyer’s wife and Nurse; both threw themselves into the maelstrom and their dramatic intensity made up for the occasional ugly sound.  Gergiev’s conducting, while wildly exciting, lacks the sweeping Echt-Straussian line and while the strings make some glorious sounds the orchestra comes across as relentlessly loud and crude. An essential purchase for Gergiev fans, perhaps, but I would veer towards the Sawallisch/Munich production with its clever Kabuki-style and musical…

January 23, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: St. Matthew Passion (Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, RIAS Kammerchor/René Jacobs)

It’s 28 years since René Jacobs sung the alto arias on Phillipe Herreweghe’s first recording of the St. Matthew Passion, which despite many superb recordings over the years has remained my favourite until now. Since taking up the baton Jacobs has given us some extraordinarily bold and personal visions of the sacred and profane. Having finally tackled this greatest masterpiece of all he is bound to cause a great deal of critical tutt-tutting with this defiantly “post-historical” interpretation using the superb RIAS Kammerchor, who have a fuller sound than the usual specialist early music ensembles and a lineup of operatic soloists; this is a redbloodedly sensual performance that may make purists foam at the mouth. In typical Jacobs’ fashion the recitatives are enhanced with a more varied continuo than usual; it is quite a shock to hear harpsichord and lute alongside the usual organ. Sunhae Im delivers soprano arias with a sinfully feminine allure (no pallid impersonations of boy sopranos here) and Bernarda Fink’s alto arias are passionately heartfelt although her tone is finally starting to show some wear; her Erbarme dich is a devastating expression of guilt. Werner Güra’s stunningly well sung Evangelist drives the narrative forward with marvelously…

January 16, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Mahler: Symphony No 8 (Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and Choir)

  Mahler’s symphonies are at risk of becoming everyday entertainments rather than gala occasions thanks to every conductor with a penchant for late Romantic repertoire anxiously wanting a go. With an over abundance on the market I’m tempted to call for a moratorium despite my sad addiction.   The Eighth is notoriously difficult to capture on disc. Jonathan Nott’s clear-headed, unsentimental approach might work in the concert hall where sheer physicality would carry all before it but it doesn’t register so well here. Part I needs broader tempi for transitions to make sense Despite Nott’s textural clarity it risks degenerating into “all sound and fury signifying nothing” not helped by a slightly cloudy recording. His firm grip works better holding together the sprawling structure of Part II but his reluctance to stop and smell the roses lets key moments pass by.   Cool modernist dissection may work in the other symphonies but the Eighth is the most blatantly theatrical; Part II is an operatic finale in disguise. Strangely both recording and performance click into focus for the conclusion and one is finally swept away in a blaze of glory – if only we’d had some of that rapture earlier. With an…

November 28, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Verdi: Requiem (La Scala)

Verdi's monument to a fellow hero of the Risorgimento and his fraught relationship with the Church must strike a chord with Daniel Banreboim drawing parallels with his friendship with Edward Said and interest in Israeli-Palestinian politics. Twety years ago he set down an exciting dramatic account in Chciago but thsoe optimistic days are past; this new recording is a lment for our troubled times – the tone is darker, almost opressively so. Mustival values are better served in chciago whereas spiritual matters are to the fore in Milan; the idfferent characters of the forces are the key – symphonic versus operatic. Despite the presence of Domingo in Chicago the new bunch of soloiosts are superior. Harteros' vibrant voice can turn pure and gleaming when required and Garanča sounds marvellously rich and idiomatic. Pape is suitably imposing, intelligently singing "on the words". Kaufmann might sound too teutonic for some ears (not mine) and his vocal production is so worryingly tight that one hopes it doesn't all go p ear-shaped with overwork. Barenboim's grasp of long term structure makes this performance work. Whiel there are some tremendous hell-raising moment eh eschews sensationalist effects in favour of a compassioante vision. Whilst not a…

November 28, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Mozart: Cosí fan tutte (Persson, Brower, Plachetka, Villazon)

DG’s new series of Mozart operas helmed by the label’s latest “das Wunder” Yannick Nézet- Séguin, kicked off last year with a superb Don Giovanni. Rolando Villazon is making a low-key comeback after his various vocal crises and has given a different slant to the tenor roles so-far. His Don Ottavio was a refreshingly muscular and Italianate change from the usual polite Mozartian tenors but here his Ferrando is not quite so successful with the more lyrical writing exposing his slightly nasal delivery; the tone now more tight and dry. Miah Persson’s Fiordiligi, a known quantity from an excellent Glyndebourne DVD, is technically immaculate and Angela Brower’s Dorabella is superb with ideal colour and weight of voice. Platchetka’s is an ideal Gugliemo and Corbelli puts in another fine not-too-buffo Don Alfonso however I remain immune to the charms of Mojca Erdmann, DG’s house soubrette. Her Despina is irritatingly arch with all the old clichéd off-key vocal disguises – tediously unfunny! Nézet-Séguin’s direction is superb, more weighted towards period style than before. The recitatives are wonderfully fleet and conversational, tempi are ideal, the finales thrilling with precise articulation. It may seem churlish to complain that this set is not at the…

October 24, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Ibert: Chamber Music (Bridge Quartet)

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) is from that long list of prolific French composers known for one or two familiar if slight works (Divertissement and Escales) but who’s more serious output has been ignored. This selection of chamber works (a cost effective genre) seeks to redress that neglect but falls short of its aim.   The String Quartet composed between 1937 and 1941 then premiered soon after the liberation of Paris in 1944 is a weighty work that bears witness to troubled times. Its first movement is a cogent argument of obsessive motives but with characteristic urbane turns of phrase followed by a slow movement of lamentation and bleak sonority. The scherzo is a playful pizzicato movement while the finale bustles along with Hindemithian counterpoint; its syncopations reminding us of the lighter Ibert we know.   The Trio for violin, cello and harp from 1944 is a good-humoured romp of fine craftsmanship and integrity: its Andante sostenuto a lyrical idyll. The programme is filled out with other short instrumental works such as the strange Ghirlarzana for solo cello and an early work; the enjoyable if inconsequential Souvenir for string quartet and double bass, here receiving its premiere recording.   Unfortunately the good…

September 19, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: Harpsichord Concertos (Halls)

Bach’s keyboard concertos, despite their obscure provenance (all are thought to be arrangements of earlier instrumental concerti), stand tall as the earliest masterpieces of the genre, brimful of contrapuntal invention. As such they offer endless possibilities for imaginative interpreters, yet performances and recordings played on harpsichord are not as common as you might suppose in the era of historically-informed performance practice, and are well outnumbered by those on modern piano. To overcome the problem of balancing the harpsichord against the standard Baroque string ensemble, the current fashion is to play them one-to-a-part, as recorded here by London’s critically acclaimed Retrospect Ensemble with their inspired young leader Matthew Halls. He plays a superb instrument with a robust yet refined tone and inflects the solo part with illuminating details, crisp rhythmic articulation and clever yet tasteful ornamentation. The ensemble perform with a clean transparent sound and fine intonation but are a times a little restrained and polite – this certainly allows the soloist to be heard to good advantage but doesn’t always reach the ideal of “a first among equals” – the players seem reluctant make the bold dramatic gestures one hears from their leader. Their short-breathed phrasing and avoidance of expressive…

September 5, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Archiv Produktion: The Early Music Studio 1947-2013

Over recent years Universal has released a series of well-priced box sets showcasing their labels with individual discs nostalgically packaged in mini LP covers and a hefty booklet documenting the history of the label. The frustrating mix of mainstream favourites with a handful of rarities has proved the proverbial curate’s egg for hard-core collectors, who will be tempted by unreleased gems. Archiv Produktion was founded in 1947 as a sub-label of Deutsche Grammophon specialising in early music, and this celebratory box gives us a chronological selection including a Bach organ recital by Helmut Walcha and some important first CD releases of 1950’s pioneers. More recent releases include a tempting taster from the superb 10CD box of Victoria by Michael Noone’s Ensemble Plus Ultra. For the first 20 discs period instruments are a rarity apart from encounters with mavericks like Jurgens and Harnoncourt. To modern ears most of the early releases now sound quaintly “ye olde musicke” with tootling recorders and “birdcage rattled by a toasting-fork” harpsichords. They caught up by the 1980s signing Reinhard Goebel and his supergroup Musica Antiqua Köln and the finest of British groups, John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists and Trevor Pinnock’s English Concert. Bach lovers…

August 29, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Andrew Ford: Learning to Howl (Sheldon, Sydney Chamber Choir)

Andrew Ford’s eclectic tastes and playful persona, well known from his bitingly witty and perceptive critical essays and radio shows are well represented here in this collection of finely crafted compositions from 2001-2007. The main work, Learning to Howl for soprano, soprano saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, harp and percussion, sets verses of Sappho and other mostly women poets across the centuries in an approachable lyrical style – the vocal writing refreshingly natural and idiomatic. The work has an austere, delicate beauty with its sparse accompaniment of harp and percussion and Ford’s keen ear for sonority and colour is much in evidence. Jane Sheldon’s pure tone and accurate intonation interweaves well with the wind obbligatos played by Margery Smith, but the songs would benefit from more dramatic projection and variety of tone on the vocalist’s part. The other lengthy work here Elegy in a Country Graveyard overlays recorded interviews of elderly residents with choir and ensemble to create an evocatively atmospheric depiction of a spectacularly positioned graveyard at Robertson in NSW’s Southern Highlands – a nostalgic tribute if quaintly ‘ABC Radio’ in character with its cawing crows.  Three short works complete the disc of which the standout is Snatches of Old…

August 15, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Da Milano: Music for Lute (O’Dette)

Francesco da Milano (1497-1543), known to his contemporaries as “il divino”, was undoubtedly the greatest lute composer of his era. Working in the service of three successive Popes, his fame was such that copies of his music appeared in manuscripts well into the 1600s and form the largest body of work for the instrument from the previous century. His hundred or so ricercars and fantasias, contrasting dense counterpoint with improvisatory scale passages, give some idea of his renowned skill as an improviser, plus some intabulations of contemporary vocal chansons; all exquisite pieces with a unique flavour and a cool, chaste beauty that recalls early Renaissance painters. The great American lutenist Paul O’Dette, responsible for many fine recordings of Renaissance music including the complete lute works of Dowland (try his disc of Simon Molinaro if you can find it), has assembled a selection of favourites into ‘proto-suites’ to make a coherent program that one can either dip into or listen straight through. He plays with his usual impeccably clean technique, pure bell-like tone and rhythmic elan, internal lines clearly voiced, virtuosic runs crisp in articulation and flexibly phrased – a careful balance of brilliance and contemplation. Recorded with Harmonia Mundi’s usual…

July 25, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Dvořák, Smetana: String Quartets (Tokyo String Quartet)

  After 45 years of service, performing up to 100 concerts a year and amassing an extensive discography, the senior members of this renowned group have decided to call it a day and retire. While this valedictory release (it was recorded in 2006) seems a predictable choice with two much- loved if well-worn warhorses, it is a warm, hearted farewell that encapsulates all the virtues that have led to the group’s legendary status: unanimity of ensemble and articulation, perfect intonation and a sumptuous tonal blend second to none thanks to their four Stradivarius instruments (“The Paganini Quartet”). To expect great revelations here would be to miss the point; these performances are wise and profound, finding exactly the right tempo for every movement, rubato applied so naturally as to seem inevitable, the phrasing idiomatic and unexaggerated. They achieve that elusive goal of a great performance – the sense that it couldn’t be played any other way. Listen to the first movement of the Dvorák and marvel at the control of sonority and balance as they relax into the second subject, the tonal change registering as a warm glow of autumnal colour, or to the unforced impetus of the finale as the…

May 23, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Hildegard: Vespers for St Hildegard (Sinfonye)

Academic and composer Stevie Wishart has edited and recorded the complete works of the recently beatified 12th-century mystic and composer Abbess Hildegard of Bingen over the last 20 years. She collaborates here with electronica producer Guy Sigsworth on a “creative re-imagining of a choral evensong”. Released with an eye on the crossover/new age audience, the disc may make purists recoil in horror but Wishart has never been afraid to allow some creative license in her interpretation of the melismatic neumes. Most of the content of this album features unadorned monodic chant performed by the six pure but characterful voices of Sinfonye, interspersed with Wishart’s tasteful reworkings “alio modo” (another way). One of Wishart’s original compositions, a particularly impressive polyphonic setting of the Magnificat, turns out to be the highlight of the disc, showing off the expressive range of the ensemble to better effect than the restrained chanting nun material surrounding it – indeed, I wished for more of this sort of polyphonic elaboration throughout. Some of the instrumental contributions come perilously close to 1970s folk/rock doodlings. And beware of two tracks where the producer has been allowed his head; Azeruz and ZuuenZ – generic ambient electronic soundscapes more appropriate for…

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