Classical Music CDs, DVDs

Staff Reviews

My relationship with the Elgar Cello Concerto is fickle at best. I find most renditions to be overladen with nostalgia and trite romanticism, but rising-star Alisa Weilerstein, alongside Daniel Barenboim, present a wonderfully refreshing interpretation in this highly-anticipated Decca Classics début. Her tone is beautifully rich, and she does just enough to capture the simplicity and charm of the work, never resorting to over–sentimentality. She’s more sparing with her use of rubato than most cellists, which I find makes for more meaningful an impact when utilised. The precipitous climb to that climactic high E sounds neither thin nor strained, never losing its emotional charge. The Staatskapelle Berlin play with an enticingly dark and warm sound, from the rich sombre E minor chords to a surprisingly transparent vulnerability in the third movement (Adagio). Weilerstein listened to the iconic Du Pré recording “almost as a daily ritual” in her childhood, yet her interpretation is far from derivative, and certainly worthy of a direct comparison.

Elliott Carter's Cello Concerto (2000) is ostensibly an unusual pairing with the Elgar concerto. Regardless, Weilerstein pulls it off with considerable flair, embracing its complex, even schizophrenic nature. From the opening cantilena with the astringent orchestral interruptions, to the dazzling cadenza-like "after-image" following the cascading orchestral chords in the final Allegro Fantastico, I was enchanted by Weilerstein's expressiveness and vast timbral palette. With razor-sharp technique and a musical intelligence to match, she manages to imbue much sensitivity and emotional depth without softening the angularity and rich rhetoric of Carter’s music. A recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2011, and already having worked with Mehta, Dudamel, and here, Barenboim, it's clear that I won't be the only admirer eagerly watching on as her career unfolds.


"Welcome to my menagerie, voluptuous ladies, proud gentlemen. Sunk in pleasure and terror, you will gaze on the cruel creature tamed by human wit." 

In fact, this "menagerie" by director Olivier Py and co-presented by Grand Théâtre de Genève (where it was held) and Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu, was seen to contain such a degree of disturbing and graphic imagery, that the management felt it necessary to post warnings dissuading anyone under sixteen years old from attending. However, as the German playwright Wedekind discovered over a century ago, censorship (the plays on which Alban Berg adapted his opera, Lulu, were originally banned) and notoriety only fuels curiosity, and before long these plays were championed and performed in private to invited audiences. It was one of these clandestine performances in Vienna in 1905 where the twenty year old Berg first encountered his irresistible anti-heroine.

Like much of Alban Berg's music, tonality isn't completed eschewed in favour of serialism. Tonal vestiges remain, and meander back and forth between harmonic centres, providing a perfect complement to the enchanting complexity of Lulu's mercurial character. And it's this character that coloratura soprano, Patricia Petibon captures with utmost rawness and sexualised dominance. The role of Lulu is monumental, carrying the intensity of the entire drama, and Petibon delivers with startling virtuosity and equanimity (she is often required to perform nude, merely clothed in transparent stockings). Her sometimes brazen tone and sybaritic high register, only to suddenly shift to tones of enchanting sweetness, suit the malefic temptress who has capricious power to seduce and destroy the hearts of men. Yet somehow, Petibon's multi-dimensional and surprisingly nuanced performance transforms Lulu into a human being of eerie poignancy. One grows to pity her, this "exterminating angel", the "hangman's noose" around the neck of all the men she encounters.

Skulls and breasts... a blood-stained sofa... sex and death... a circular wheel of neon lights, labeled "Mort en color'" inexorably rotates. The references to sex are abundant and constantly reinforced by the staging and background action, but these perhaps hyperbolic approaches allow the audience to delve deep into Lulu's ambiguous and complex soul, all lasciviousness and darkness made explicit. The interlude in Act 2 where we see Lulu's trial, conviction and imprisonment, only to contract cholera (deliberately) and escape in Countess Geschwitz' clothes, juxtaposed as a tableau vivant against the action of Scene 2 behind a blood red veil, is a particularly arresting sequence. The colourful approach to costume design is not without its idiosyncrasies, and Petibon's voluptuous Marilyn Monroe-inspired sequin dress and make-up in Act 3 is a truly a sight to behold.

The rest of the cast are equally remarkable. Ashley Holland's menacing Dr. Schön delivers assertive strength, and Dr. Schön's son, Alwa, is performed with moving discomposure by a robust Paul Groves. Julia Juon as the lesbian Countess Geschwitz who is infatuated by Lulu, captures her enfeebled role with pitiable yearning. The ambiguous Schigolch, delivered with startling ease by Franz Grundheber, is appropriately ominous and foreboding. 

The Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu delivers a strikingly powerful performance under Michael Boder, revelling in the heady romanticism that makes Berg such a beguiling and fascinating composer. The video direction by François Roussillon is a careful balance between wide stage shots and dramatic closeups, from the excessive kaleidoscopic spectacle accompanied by neon signs with text such as "Mein Herz ist schwa", "Liebestod", "Joie ads asters", to Petibon's plush eyelashes and murderous glances. 

This is a breath-taking production of a brilliant and important opera which is too infrequently recorded with such meticulousness and artistry. Lovers of Berg's music and 20th century opera will undoubtedly adore this production, but it's also a worthwhile consideration for anyone even remotely interested in opera at large.


Berlioz boldly asserted in his Treatise on Instrumentation: "The oboe is above all a melodic instrument; it has a rustic character, full of tenderness, I would even say timidity". With this debut album with Harmonia Mundi, French oboist Céline Moinet delivers a beautifully crafted program of solo oboe music spanning from around 1718 (JS Bach) to 1992 (Carter), which questions and challenges this anachronistic statement.

It's worth noting that the three 20th century works by Berio, Britten and Carter, are in fact the only works on the album which were written specifically for the oboe. The pieces by the Bach family were both originally written for the flute, though Moinet shows that they also work rather charmingly for her instrument. Her time at the Paris Conservatoire, working with the likes of David Walter, Maurice Bourgue and Marcel Ponseele, has clearly equipped Moinet with wonderfully dexterous technique and an exquisite approach to tone production. The Bach works which effectively sandwich the program are approached with welcome clarity and a sweet timbre. Her use of rubato in these works has been criticised as being perhaps "self-conscious", but I find myself more attracted to her brave choices in this regard, which I view as an attempt (and a successful one) at effusing more lyricism and a personal intimate touch.

Perhaps it's due to the added virtuosity and timbal flexibility, but I find myself substantially more convinced by Moinet's renditions of the three 20th Century works on the CD. Her performance of Berio's Sequenza VII captures the mercurial spirit of the piece with striking assertiveness. The work is characterised by a continual state of being "trapped" on a single pitch (B) and attempting to escape, only to be inexorably drawn back again. Moinet captures this capricious journey with a truly remarkable palette of timbres and startling control of the extremes ends of the oboe's register. In Britten's substantially more subtle and understated Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, Moinet's beautifully crafted tone truly sings. When listening through the fifth "metamorphosis" titled 'Narcissus', Caravaggio's own evocation of Narcissus transfixed by his reflection in the water suddenly came to mind, and I found myself utterly enchanted by the plaintive yearning and echoic gestures Moinet so carefully sculpts. Despite the ostensible simplicity of Elliott Carter's Inner Song, Moinet infuses a hyper-expressive intimacy into what is effectively a six and a half minute long cantilena. With long-arching phrases, interjected by the occasional manic angularity, and introspective multiphonic, Moinet's precise control of timbre and shaping of melodic line proves to be quite arresting.

A real strength of the CD is the perspicacious approach to the program, from the "virtual polyphony" that draws together the Bach Partita and the Berio Sequenza, to the haunting monodies of the CPE Bach Sonata and the Britten and Carter works. For this reason I feel it transcends a limited appeal to students and oboe enthusiasts, and offers a rewarding listening experience to a much wider audience.

Mark Padmore (tenor) and Paul Lewis (piano) present the third and final instalment of their widely-acclaimed Schubert song cycle triptych with a remarkable interpretation of Schubert's last songs, composed in the final year of the composer's life. Unlike the previous two Müller cycles (Die schöne Müllerin; and Winterreise), Schwanengesang is not strictly a song cycle in the same sense, consists of settings of three different poets, seven by Ludwig Rellstab, and one by Johann Gabriel Seidl, assembled and published after Schubert's death by his publisher Tobias Haslinger. However, despite the lack of a narrative link between the songs, Padmore and Lewis bravely and perspicaciously carve out their own refined dramatic arcs throughout the songs. 

Hearing Padmore's multifaceted interpretations through Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise, and now Schwanengesang, it's clearly evident why he's regarded as one of the finest lieder tenors in England. Few singers would match the depth and richness of tone Padmore achieves with Schubert's songs, and his German diction is abundant with all the guttural "ch"'s you could possibly dream for. Appropriately, Padmore doesn't focus so much on creating a consistent vocal "character" throughout the recording, but rather embraces an emotional capriciousness with seeming ease; from the almost naive delicacy of the 'Liebesbotschaft', full of hope "for her beloved will soon return", which suddenly turns to the funereal despair of 'Kriegers Ahnung' ("Warrior's Foreboding"), a forlorn sigh for a distant love.

Like his mentor Alfred Brendel, Paul Lewis brings substantial insight as a lieder accompanist to this recording. His sensitivity and immense attention to detail are breathtaking. From the delightfully guitar-like "plucks" in the famous Ständchen, beautifully accompanying Padmore's youthful serenading, to the harrowing 'Der Doppelgänger', where Lewis shapes the sepulchral chord progressions with such eerie profundity, allowing us to ponder the glacial depths of despair of the composer himself.

To conclude the CD, Padmore and Lewis delight with a buoyant rendition of Auf deem Strom, with its satisfyingly hefty horn part delivered by Richard Watkins, and with enchanting simplicity, Die Sterne, rounding out the program in a more heartening mood.

Following on from a stunning pair of solo albums (Dg 4778140 and Dg 4778795),  Yuja Wang joins Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra for her first orchestral album. As daunting an experience as it must be to record these two much loved and performed works by Rachmaninov, through her effortless technique and immense sensitivity, 22-year old Yuja Wang delivers a truly remarkable result.

The dizzying feat of virtuosity that is Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini comes from a period in the composer's life where his success as a concert pianist was fuelling a bustling international career. The work itself, a set of twenty-four variations, takes its "Theme" from the twenty-fourth of Paganini's Caprices for solo violin, an immensely difficult work that no doubt helped fuel rumours that Paganini had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for unparalleled technique! Amazingly, Wang performs the Rhapsody with almost enchanting ease, her youthful enthusiasm enhancing the colourful and exuberant nature of the work itself. In the liner notes, we discover that this is indeed her "favourite of the Rachmaninov works for piano and orchestra". It shows.

The Piano Concerto No.2 came in existence under very different circumstances. After the poor initial reception of his first Symphony (among other things, being likened to a depiction of the ten plagues of Egypt), Rachmaninov experienced a period of severe depression. However, with the aid of Dr Nikolai Dahl, a physician who specialised in neuropsychotherapy via hypnosis, Rachmaninov went on to compose, as a kind of 'exorcism', one of his most loved and enduring works. Wang, clearly inspired by Rachmaninov's own very tight and almost restrained interpretation of the concerto, highlights that "instead of sounding very broad in what you might expect to be huge lyrical moments, his sound remains amazingly transparent". With the insight of Abbado and clarity of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Wang provides a truly refreshing mix of emotional fervour and crystalline technique, unclouded by dramatic pretense.