[The CD title is linked to our affiliate, Amazon.com - Ed]
Recommended New Releases - Update 27/12/10
Beloved of the Gods – Mozart & Mendelssohn [68:08]
Dean Emmerson Dean trio / Tinalley String Quartet
Melba SACD MR301121 (2009)
After a number of esoteric recent releases, Melba have veered back towards the mainstream with this one; even so, the works offered here were new to me. Brett Dean is perhaps better known as one of our finest modern composers, yet he played Principal Viola with the mighty Berlin Philharmonic for several years, and teams here with brother Paul (clarinet) and fellow hometowner Stephen Emmerson (piano) to tackle the unusually-scored ‘Kegelstatt’ trio K498. Rumoured to have been written during a game of skittles, it was intended for private performance by Mozart’s inner circle; appropriate, then, that in the hands of these long-term friends, all of the piece’s warmth and charm comes to the fore, where it is captured in Melba’s supremely natural sound (and that from the CD layer of this SACD!). Also offered is an attractive suite of excerpts from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”, arranged by Emmerson in a revival of an 18th Century tradition for recycling operatic arias into chamber music.
The Tinalley Quartet is a fine young Australian ensemble, victorious at the 2007 Banff International Chamber Music competition. They play here Mendelssohn’s Second String Quartet, written when the precociously gifted composer was still in his teens, which helped to secure them that award. This is a romantic, introspective piece of music, with the instrumental fireworks typical of a quartet from this period largely absent; instead, Tinalley tackle it with an impressive maturity and sophistication, allowing the work’s exquisite sonorities to develop in sumptuous, beguiling fashion. The exceptional quality of the disc’s packaging and artwork is true to the Melba tradition. So there we have it –wonderful music, finely played, superbly recorded and lavishly presented – what are you waiting for?! AF
￼Volupté – Music for Viola and Piano [68:36]
Roger Benedict – Viola / Timothy Young – Piano / Ben Jacks – Horn
Melba MR301126 (2010)
I must admit, a disc of obscure 20th Century French chamber music isn’t normally the sort of thing to have me queuing outside the record store before opening time (for any children reading this, a ‘record store’ was a place where dinosaurs went to buy music – and how I miss them!). That’s what makes this recording such an unexpected find … still, let’s start at the beginning. Composed between 1896 and 1940 by two close contemporaries, Belgian Joseph Jongen and Frenchman Charles Koechlin, the (by turns) stimulating, disturbing or simply lush music featured in these world premiere recordings confirms that the obscurity attained by both men is ill-deserved.
The disc opens with Koechlin’s Viola Sonata from 1915, a piece infused with the horror and pathos of a time of madness. It is an emotionally engaging journey through a surprisingly large and complex soundscape, the unpredictability of its twists and turns never allowing the listener to settle. The addition of a horn in Koechlin’s ‘Quatre Petites Pièces’ lends a deliciously mournful presence to these wistful, melodic cameos from the composer’s early maturity. The four (unconnected) incidental works by Jongen cover an even greater timespan, from 1900 to 1940, yet still manage to give the impression of a coherent whole. A melodicist who found himself out of step with prevailing fashion, this is thoughtful, accessible music in a late romantic style – though, again, its frequent mood changes are always likely to lead it off in an unexpected direction.
Australian Roger Benedict has spent the last twenty years as Principal Viola of the Philharmonic Orchestra in London and, latterly, the Sydney Symphony. Compatriot Timothy Young is a highly credentialed pianist, and together they give a flawless account of these works, attracting glowing plaudits from the specialist press. Melba’s recording is of reference standard for its sheer presence and naturalness, while the quality of the artwork and packaging is beyond exceptional, making this a disc to cherish! AF
￼Recommended New Releases - Update 12/11/10
Mozart – Symphonies (29,31,32,35,36) [1:56:57]
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Mackerras
Linn CKD350 (2010)
Anyone who caught my glowing review of 2008’s companion disk, Symphonies 38-41, will understand how keenly I had anticipated this release; a selection of works from the first decade of Mozart’s maturity. It opens with Symphony No.29, composed while Mozart was still in his teens but often considered his first true masterpiece. It was a momentary surprise when the opening bars lacked a little of the colour and weight of the earlier release … until I remembered the reduced scoring of this work, just two oboes, two horns and strings. While No. 29 tempers its technical sophistication with memorable melodies and youthful high spirits, the formal grandeur of the final symphonies is already apparent in No.31 (‘Paris’) from 1778. No.32 is a curiosity – more akin to an overture, it is performed as two short movements lasting less than 8 minutes in total; a reminder that our modern conception of a symphony did not become concrete until Beethoven’s time. No.35 (‘Haffner’) and 36 (‘Linz’) restore the familiar dimensions and structure of the later works; both were written in considerable haste (almost legendary in the case of the Linz!), though their brilliant execution shows no evidence of this, as their enduring popularity attests.
My only adverse comment on the original release had been the extremely brisk tempos of the final movements, but that is not the case here – the timings across the board are very much in line with the current norm, though I note that Mackerras manages to achieve a more compelling sense of pace and momentum than does Abbado (in his recent set with the Orchestra Mozart) or Jacobs (with the FBO), even when the timings are near-identical. The quality of the orchestral playing remains exceptional, and I have yet to hear (nor can I easily imagine!) performances to surpass these. Given my enthusiasm for the original recording’s sound quality, I was pleased to note that both the recording venue and technical crew (Mallinson/Hobbs) is unchanged, though the sessions occurred two years apart. After a number of to-and-fro comparisons, I concluded that the recorded perspective is just a fraction less close on this release, though the sheer quality of the recording is undiminished. Another mandatory release, then, given added poignancy by the recent passing of Sir Charles Mackerras – one of the pre-eminent Mozartians of our time. AF
Brahms – Violin Sonatas [68:07]
Anne-Sophie Mutter – Violin / Lambert Orkis – Piano
DG 477 8767 (2010)
These three lovely sonatas from Brahms’ mid to later years are among the most uninhibitedly melodic of all his compositions. The first was written for the great unrequited love of his life, Clara Schumann, as she mourned the loss of a child, and its expression of tenderness, sadness and consolation is still very touching to hear. The later pair, composed around 1886, capture Brahms in altogether sunnier mood; though the third quickly assumes a grandeur of expression and dramatic intensity, especially in the closing Presto, reminiscent of a much larger-scale work. Mutter and Orkis, long-term collaborators, know every nook and cranny of these sonatas. The dialogue between them seems entirely instinctive, resulting in a gloriously polished and insightful rendition. I did not enjoy Mutter’s recent Mendelssohn disc, but she has certainly won me over with this one. On a side note, the highly photogenic Ms Mutter is featured in a variety of random, soft-focus shots that give the CD booklet more the feel of a lingerie catalogue – though DG’s marketing department are hardly the first to be guilty of that! AF
Recommended New Releases – Update 23/10/10
Buxtehude – 7 Suonate Op.1 [56:53]
Chandos 0766 (2010)
Dietrich Buxtehude was a Swede who spent most of his career as the organist in Lübeck, Germany, until his death in 1707. Though little remembered today, such was the height of his celebrity at the time that a teenaged JS Bach walked a huge distance (I’ve seen anything from 40 to 300 miles quoted!) just to hear him play. Later, an 18-year old GF Handel would apply for Buxtehude’s position upon his retirement, hastily withdrawing when it became clear that the successful applicant was also expected to marry the ageing Frӓulein Buxtehude!
The Opus 1 Sonatas (which, along with an Opus 2 set, were the only works published during his lifetime) date from the early 1690s, a time when three parallel traditions of trio sonata form all reached their zenith; Purcell in England, Buxtehude in Germany and Corelli in Italy. Though the more flamboyant Italian style quickly rendered the others obsolete, clear echoes of the German model remain in the works of Telemann and Bach. This is attractive and refined music, played with impeccable sophistication – the period instrument sound perhaps a little ‘old school’ in its restraint and measured tempii, though it might be argued that its dignity is appropriately ‘Germanic’! The recording is good, if a shade distant and lacking in dynamics. Having cherished their recordings of the complete Purcell Sonatas for more than 20 years now, it has been a delight to rediscover the Purcell Quartet. While there are several alternative versions of the Buxtehude Sonatas from which to choose, I doubt you’d do a great deal better than this.
Angela Hewitt Plays Handel and Haydn [67:25]
Angela Hewitt - Piano
Hyperion CDA67736 (2009)
Angela Hewitt is an extraordinarily complete artist; it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the breadth of her vision, and the sensitivity and intellectual rigour with which she approaches the performance of Baroque keyboard music, most notably that of JS Bach. This is not the first time she has appeared in these pages, and it won’t be the last! It seems fair to say that solo keyboard works do not feature prominently in the popular oeuvre of either of these great composers – though, in typically prolific fashion, Haydn produced 52 numbered sonatas for the fortepiano, the last of which is performed here. It was composed around 1794, just as his young pupil Beethoven was publishing his own first set, the Opus 2 sonatas … a symbolic passing of the baton, and the dawn of a dazzling new chapter in the piano’s history. Still, this disc opens with two Suites and a Chaconne with variations by Handel, and Hewitt’s fine touch is immediately in evidence; her connection with music originally written for the harpsichord so instinctual and insightful, her technique so suited to its filigree structure. In her hands, the change of instrument serves only to illuminate the inner structure of these works; by contrast, others choosing to record them on piano – Murray Perahia, for instance, though his “Harmonious Blacksmith” is stunning! – seem necessarily to offer us revisions. While in many ways Hewitt’s performance of the Haydn is every bit as fine, it is music with a more masculine character and I feel that equally convincing interpretations are provided elsewhere – from my own collection, Hamelin and Bavouzet spring to mind. Nevertheless, a highly recommended release.
Recommended New Releases (27/08/10)
John Sheppard – Media Vita [70:16]
Harmonia Mundi SACD HMU807509 (2010)
It took about 10 seconds of Stile Antico’s debut disc, 2007’s “Music For Compline” (featuring works by Tallis, Byrd, Sheppard and others), to establish that a major new force had arrived on the Early Music scene. The record buying public have responded similarly, propelling their later “Song of Songs” disc to the top of the classical charts. Sheppard is one of the lesser-known figures of the English Renaissance, the details of his life largely obscure; here, a selection of rarely performed works accompany his monumental antiphon Media Vita, a haunting 25-minute plea for long life that, for Sheppard himself, went sadly unanswered. Its slow tempo beautifully showcases the density of the six-part harmonies and the ethereal purity of Stile Antico’s singing, finely recorded in a glorious acoustic. Even the more potentially uplifting pieces, though, seem infected by the title work’s solemnity, and I missed the more outgoing, sunnier aspect of the Compline disc. Nevertheless, highly recommended. AF
J S Bach – Brandenburg Concertos [92:04]
English Baroque Soloists / Gardiner
SDG 707 (2009)
Link to Andy Fawcett’s full review
Camille Saint-Saëns has been tarred with the reputation of a composer whose music is impeccably tasteful, while lacking in emotional depth. Comparing the two sonatas performed here with Beethoven’s five for the same instrumental duo (a recording of which, by Daniel Müller-Schott and Angela Hewitt on Hyperion, I enthuse over below) does tend to reinforce this view; the energy and gravitas of the Frenchman’s writing often mirroring, yet never matching the extremes of his illustrious forebear. It does not, though, diminish the pleasure to be derived from these lovely, strongly melodic sonatas and the included incidental pieces (including the gorgeous ‘Le Cygne’ from ‘Le Carnaval des Animaux’), sympathetically played by two experienced and accomplished performers. Certainly, none of the dissonance and atonality that Saint-Saëns deplored in his younger contemporaries intrudes! The recording is good; well-balanced and, with a less upfront perspective than many, benefitting from some hall acoustic. AF
Recommended New Releases (02/08/10)
Sibelius/Prokofiev – Violin Concertos [63:56]
Vilde Frang – violin, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Sondergard
EMI 6 84413 2 (2009)
Norwegian prodigy Vilde Frang has already garnered much critical acclaim and, for her debut disc, has stayed close to home (geographically speaking) with these early 20th Century works by Northern European composers. Sibelius reserved his only concerto for his own instrument, debuting it in 1905, while the first of keyboard virtuoso Prokofiev’s two violin concertos had a low-key start in life, waiting several years for its 1923 première. Both of these works are founded upon a solid, almost Brahmsian classicism that was out of step with contemporary trends, and both receive a marvellous performance here. Frang shrugs off their considerable technical challenges with flair and great assurance, and could hardly ask for better support than she receives from the Cologne orchestra, though there were times when I would have liked to hear more projection in her tone. A great recording too – what I’ve come to think of as typical EMI, slightly dark with huge dynamics and a realistic balance.
Handel – Duets [62:44]
Rosemary Joshua – soprano, Sarah Connolly – mezzo, English Concert/Bicket
Chandos 0767 (2010)
Handel liked to use a duet at key dramatic moments in his operas and oratorios – generally featuring a castrato in the male role, though I promise not to mention it again so readers can uncross their legs now! This inspired selection of arias spans the period 1710 to 1749, almost his entire career as a composer. Connolly and Joshua’s voices achieve a sumptuous harmony, while the period instrument sound of the English Concert (with Harry Bicket having taken over the reins from Andrew Manze) is as flawless as ever. The Chandos recording, which places the singers at opposite sides of the stage for maximum effect, is also very fine; with just the minor quirk that the orchestral sound is imaged at an abnormal elevation, as if the musicians were standing up! Don’t let that discourage you, though – this disc is a joy from beginning to end, and highly recommended.
George Onslow – String Quartets Op. 54-56 [77:41]
Naive V5200 (2009)
Now almost completely obscure, Onslow was born and raised in France of a wealthy English émigré father and French mother, achieving great popularity and acclaim in his day. He left a substantial body of work, these quartets dating from perhaps his most interesting period; a time when the man labelled “The French Beethoven” was struggling to come to terms with the impact of Beethoven’s late string quartets.
Initially hostile, Onslow soon came to understand and admire these powerful and passionate works, though he could not embrace all of their ferocity and angularity. The Opus 54 to 56 Quartets, written during the early 1830s, undoubtedly bear the hallmarks of his eminent muse, yet suffused with a thoroughly Gallic grace and sensibility that testifies to the aptness of his nickname. The youthful members of Quatuor Diotima handle this material with great panache and obvious relish. I expect, as a matter of course, stimulating musical programme and superb sound quality from any release on the Naive label, and this certainly doesn’t disappoint – though some may find the recorded perspective too forward. AF
J S Bach – Flute Sonatas [66:21]
Joshua Smith – Flute, Jory Vinikour - Harpsichord
Delos DE 3402 (2009)
Link to Anthony Kershaw’s full review
J S Bach – Concertos [58:42]
Julia Fischer – Violin, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields
Decca 4780650 (2009)
As period instrument recordings of Baroque music have become the norm, this modern instrument release stands out as something of an oddity. Forget the bloated, syrupy sound of yore, though – the venerable Academy’s forces are stripped down for action, and they treat us to one of the new breed of “period-informed” performances in which the only thing lacking is the deliciously pungent tone of antique instruments.
The three violin concertos, BWV1041-3, are among the most recorded of Baroque works – the sublime adagio from the Double Concerto surely one of the most memorable in all of music – and this performance achieves a lovely symmetry of energy and grace. Fischer’s sound balances wonderfully with the orchestra, gaining prominence when required before merging seamlessly back into the tutti. My preference remains with period instruments, yet this disc is thoroughly recommendable in every respect bar one; the recording is somewhat ‘glassy’ and bright. AF
Handel – Musick for the Royal Fireworks [68:57]
Zefiro / Alfredo Bernardini
Sony 88697367912 (2009)
Link to Andy Fawcett’s full review
Alfred Brendel – The Farewell Concerts [141:09]
Alfred Brendel – Piano, Vienna Philharmonic/Sir Charles Mackerras
Decca 4782116 (2009)
For all the pleasure he has given us over his 60 years of performing, who could begrudge the maestro one last send-off? Brendel, with his finely articulated technique and cerebral readings will, for many of us, always be considered the definitive interpreter of Mozart’s piano concertos; the first disc fittingly opens with No. 9 in E flat major K271, taken from his final performance on 18/12/08 with the Vienna Philharmonic. The remaining programme was recorded at his last solo recital, four days earlier, featuring works by the great Germanic composers of the Classical period (Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart, and closing with a Busoni arrangement of Bach). Not the virtuoso pot-boilers that others might have chosen – though arthritis had caused him to cease playing most of those in recent years – but thoughtful, reflective pieces in which he invests his lifetime of experience. Brendel writes of wishing to cease performing while still in full command, and on this evidence that is exactly what he has achieved. A slice of history, these recordings are captured in very good live sound, the recital especially. AF
Beethoven – Cello Sonatas Op. 102 (Vol. 2) [71:03]
Daniel Müller-Schott – Cello Angela Hewitt – Piano
Hyperion CDA67755 (2010)
I admit to being a huge fan of both these musicians - Müller-Schott’s performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto (Orfeo C621061A) is a Desert Island Disc for me – and they have teamed before on a fine recording of JS Bach Gamba Sonatas (Orfeo C693071A). The first volume of this release, which I have not heard, contains the first three of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and cello; the final pair, catalogued as Opus 102 and written in 1815, appear here. For the sake of completeness, they are joined by his remaining works for that instrumental duo; three earlier sets of variations, composed around the turn of the century.
Comparison with the fine recording of these same works by Menahem Pressler and Antonio Meneses (Avie AV2103) was instructive. The musicianship of Hewitt and Müller-Schott is simply peerless – both shrug off the technical challenges of these works yet, for me, there is an emotional coolness to their playing that contrasts with the looser, less accomplished but more soulful reading of their experienced rivals. Also, the ringing clarity of Hewitt’s Fazioli piano, so suited to the Baroque music that is her stock in trade, is less convincing here and allows the cello to dominate. The warmer, more muscular sound of Pressler’s Steinway adds gravitas and achieves a better overall balance, I feel. That said, if forced to make the choice I would lean towards this disc, for the stellar playing on offer and the uniquely sublime sound of Müller-Schott’s cello. The quality of the recording is superb, even by Hyperion’s typically high standards. AF
Chopin – Complete Waltzes [67:51]
Ingrid Fliter – Piano
EMI 6 98351 2 (2009)
In addition to the 13 Waltzes published with Opus numbers during Chopin’s lifetime, others received posthumous publication and more emerged later, though not subjected to the careful revision that the composer typically accorded his work; a total of 20, all of which are recorded here. Despite few of these Waltzes being danceable, they have remained popular with audiences and performers and, it barely need be stated, uncompromisingly challenge and extend the constraints of their genre. This up-and-coming Argentine pianist has established a close empathy with Chopin, her performance here being engaging and technically assured, characterful but never showy. Her tempos are sensible, and her crisply articulated style is ideally suited to this material. By comparison, returning to Stephen Kovacevich’s recording of the Waltzes (also on EMI) left an impression of unconvincing tempos and rhythmic waywardness in his playing that I had not detected before. Recording quality is good, though some might prefer a closer perspective and increased dynamics. AF
This wildly original release should appeal both to lovers of Early Music, and those with a taste for the bizarre. Members of Australia’s premier period instrument orchestra tackle a series of improvisations, re-imaginings and reinterpretations of lesser-known, early Baroque compositions in the Spanish, Italian and Austrian styles. These front-rank musicians, equipped with antique instruments, cut loose and flout the accepted conventions of ‘authentic’ performance, allowing a variety of modern influences to intrude; the results span the range from surprising to confronting! If the expression “boogie-woogie harpsichord” intrigues you – and it’s in much better taste than you might fear! – then this vivid and spacious recording merits further investigation, perhaps initially via its YouTube promo [see below]. I’m encouraged that, with the record industry supposedly in the doldrums, there is still room for brave and quirky releases such as this. AF