Classical Music CDs, DVDs

Staff Reviews

Nielsen Symphony 1 & 6

Colin Davis/ Lso

 

8/10

The LSO Live label’s newest release is the second disc of Nielsen, under Colin Davis, featuring the Symphony No.1 and 6.

Colin Davis seems to be completely at home with Scandinavian music—his early recordings of Sibelius’ orchestral music are perfectly balanced musically, and the tempi are ideal to keep the flow of the music going whilst still capturing the often still, sometimes desolate nature of the music. It was no surprise then that this translated well into Colin Davis and the LSO’s first release of Nielsen’s most famous symphonies, Nos. 4 & 5.

Davis and the LSO capture the musical narrative wonderfully in both symphonies 1 & 6. The eccentricities of Nielsen’s music are always present, but are never allowed to dominate, making the actual musical content most compelling. Nielsen’s First Symphony is arguably the most original first symphony of any romantic or post-romantic composer; whilst it clearly owes its structure and treatment of material to Brahms, and occasionally  the sound and orchestration is reminiscent of Dvorak, the work is strikingly original and unmistakably Nielsen. The Symphony No.6 is Nielsen’s least-performed symphony, probably because it’s a confronting, confusing and sometimes even bewildering listening experience; there is something disconcerting about the athematic scherzo for winds and percussion, and ending the work with two bassoons alone playing their lowest note as loudly as they can! But the sound of the work is unique and compelling, and very much worth the several visits it inevitably takes to ‘get it’. The LSO act as an excellent guide to the work in this sense—many recordings accentuate the 'weirdness' to a point of alienation, whereas Davis and the LSO craft the work smoothly to make for captivating listening.

A wonderful disc; it is a testament to the quality of both Nielsen’s music and the performances that this recording can withstand repeated listenings without losing its freshness.


Rameau Dardanus Le Temple De La Gloire

Tafelmusik

 

7/10

 

After the highly successful release “The Galileo Project”, Tafelmusik have put out another three discs, including one of the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau; the tragédie en musique Dardanus and his opéra-ballet Le temple de la gloire.

 

The works on the disc provide an excellent initiation to Rameau, one of the first master orchestrators; the orchestral timbres and sounds created through Rameau’s orchestration are unlike anything of it’s time. Dardanus is intimately set, and orchestrated for relatively small band, allowing the solo instrumentalists of Tafelmusik to really shine—this is particularly enjoyable in the slower dance movements. By contrast, le temple de la gloire calls for a much larger band including drums, trumpets and horns, and the collective sound here is very impressive.

 

Rameau seems to be enjoying somewhat of an early music renaissance, and this disc makes for interesting comparison with other recent Rameau releases by early music groups; the Jordi Savall is probably more adventurous and sweeping in approach, and the Brüggen with the Orchestra of the 18th Century is definitely more fun (to the credit of the drummers in the band!), but the appeal of the Tafelmusik release is its consistency and refinement. The instrumentalists are extremely skilled, the performances are refined and detailed, and Rameau’s wonderful orchestration is allowed to shine making it ideal as a “reference recording” but some of the fun and joy of the music is lost, particularly in le temple de la gloire—for all it’s wonderful qualities, this feels like a German group performing French music, and whilst the approach translates beautifully for other releases such as the Brandenburg concertos and Haydn Symphonies, Tafelmusik miss something here.


Lotus Blossoming - Zemlinsky Trio/ Messiaen Qt

Ensemble Liaison

7½/10

“Lotus Blossoming" is Ensemble Liaison's second disc in the last year, this time on Melba records, and branches out into less familiar territory; their previous CD was of Bruch, Brahms and Beethoven. This new disc features the early Clarinet Trio of Zemlinsky, and a masterpiece of the French chamber music canon, Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, featuring violinist Wilma Smith, concertmaster of the Melbourne symphony.

Zemlinsky is perhaps one of the most underrated figures of the development of 20th century German music—he is known mostly, at least musicologically, as the stylistic link between two of the great composers; Brahms, whom he revered and Schoenberg, for whom Zemlinsky was the only composition teacher. His music however (other than the Lyric Symphony) is seldom recorded. The Clarinet Trio (op.3) is an early work, clearly demonstrating the influence of Brahms in Zemlinsky's earliest music—the music is unashamedly romantic, in the style of the late 19th century, and could easily wallow in the wrong hands.  Ensemble Liaison keeps the work lean and tight, whilst still capturing all of the romantic spirit. Much like the trio's disc of Beethoven and Brahms, pianist Timothy Young (who has also released a CD of piano music of George Frederick Boyle is released this month) does exceptionally well to play with such transparency, allowing the clarinet and cello ample room to adopt extremes of dynamic without being overwhelmed. The lengthy first movement is particularly well crafted. Whether this work is a masterpiece is questionable, but it is well worth a listen as a direct comparison to the late Brahms trio of the same combination, and you are unlikely to find a better performance than the one presented here.

Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time is undeniably one of the great chamber works of all time—when performed live by the best of ensembles, this quartet is uniquely special for audiences. Seldom is the magic of this work, however, fully realised on disc; it relies so much on its more atmospheric qualities--the sound filling the venue space and the incidental sounds of a live performance--that the necessary antiseptic caution of a studio recording results in a significantly less powerful listening experience. Nevertheless, it is a compulsory requirement for anyone's CD collection and Ensemble Liaison are again extremely reliable exponents of the work, allowing the music to speak for itself but in an appropriately personal way.

Like all of Melba's output on disc, the disc is presented excellently, with interesting and approachable notes; it is an excellent addition to the recordings available, reliable as a reference recording but also as a distinctive reading.

 

 


Arcadia Lost Vaughan Williams Britten - Davislim

Wigglesworth/ Sso

8/10

“Arcadia Lost", on Melba records, is somewhat of an unusual 'highlights-reel' of the current Australian music scene featuring the Sydney Symphony Orchestra with soloists Michael Daugh (violin), Roger Benedict (viola), Cantillation, in live performances of Britten and Vaughan-Williams. Given that most discs are released with the aim of featuring a composer or artist, it makes the grouping of Vaughan-Williams The Lark Ascending, Flos Campi, and On Wenlock Edge (performed by the Hamer Quartet, Benjamin Martin and Steve Davislim) with Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem an immediately unexpected program. What makes the disc work are the wonderful performances, and that, with the exception of The Lark Ascending, these are all works that need more recognition for the masterpieces they are.

The SSO are in fine form for this recording, with Mark Wigglesworth pacing each of the works beautifully to allow the orchestra time to make an excellent sound throughout—nowhere more evidently than in the Britten. The wind solos are radiant--especially the unusual saxophone--and really illuminate one of Britten's most colourful scores. The orchestra support the soloists wonderfully in each of the Vaughan-Williams works, particularly in Flos Campi. The oboe solo that begins the work is arresting, and Roger Benedict is given full opportunity to explore the solo lines that haunt the work. The sound is compelling throughout. This is, at least in my opinion one of Vaughan-Williams greatest, if not most confronting works—the orchestral scoring is masterly, and the combination with wordless chorus is truly unique.

The standard of performance throughout the disc is faultless, and it is a credit to Melba records that through putting these performances on disc that none of the immediacy of the live performance is lost—you feel like you are in the concert hall.

On Wenlock Edge is, however, a strange conclusion to the disc—a fine work, and a fine performance, but it is a sudden change in ensemble and it was recorded in a studio, making it lack the "edge" that was so impressive in the other performances presented. Still, on its own, the performance is very fine, and makes a compelling case for the merit of the music.

As a showcase of some of the best music talent within Australia, this recording is really hard to go past, and the repertoire is excellent.


Bruch Eight Pieces Excs Brahms & Beethoven Clari

Ensemble Liaison

Ensemble Liaison, a clarinet-cello-piano trio, is well-known to Melbourne audiences as an innovative chamber ensemble, expertly filling in the gaps of great chamber repertoire left out in the apparent boom of string quartets and piano trios here over the last decade. This disc is their first on Tall Poppies, and showcases the staple repertoire of this instrumental combination; the trios of Beethoven and Brahms, as well as some of the Bruch Eight Pieces.

The Beethoven trio is an early work (op.11) and owes much to Mozart and his Kegelstatt clarinet trio (indeed, at times the figuration sounds almost exactly the same!), but this is still an excellent and original work, and a personal favourite of Beethoven's early works. Of particular note is the slow movement, which perhaps foreshadows Beethoven’s later works more than most of his output at this time. The piano playing throughout this recording is perfectly clear despite the demanding part, allowing the clarinet and particularly the cello to shine through the dense textures, particularly of the Brahms.

 

The most pleasing part about this recording is that it comes with the certainty of an ensemble of players comfortable with one another--often these works are recorded by put-together ensembles of soloists, meaning you miss out on the unity of thought that is always present with great quartets and trios. The performances are very well thought out, very fluid, and these works are an excellent addition to the CD collection for anyone looking for some more unusual repertoire from these great composers.




Valery Gergiev conducts the LSO in this disc of all Debussy orchestral works, including La Mer. The LSO Live series has been a tremendous success, with recordings of relatively well-known works performed live with excellent recording quality and remarkably consistent excellence in the orchestral playing. The LSO recordings under Gergiev have been generally well received, particularly the recordings of the Prokofiev symphonies, and this disc is no exception. The Jeux on this disc is particularly well poised and probably the best account of the work available on disc. The orchestral playing is immaculate in all of the works, right from the opening of Prelude to the afternoon of the faun, and Gergiev gets excellent shape from the orchestra to guide the architecture of each work. Sometimes the rubato can be a little over the top and the shapes can become over-evident, but the LSO respond well to it and the result is nonetheless convincing. If you are new to the 20th century orchestra, then La Mer is probably the best way to start a collection- it's very accessible and in many ways a traditionally romantic work, but uses the orchestral palatte in a way that revolutionised orchestral writing at the start of the last century. The recording quality is excellent, and these works are "must haves" in any collection of orchestral music.

Mozart Violin Concerto 3/5/ Sinfonia Concertante

Richard Tognetti

Australian violinist Richard Tognetti’s latest recording features an all-Mozart program of two concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante on Swedish label BIS. It comes immediately after his recording of the Dvorak concerto with Christian Lindberg and the Nordic Chamber Orchestra. As a whole, this recording is significantly more successful than the Dvorak—Tognetti sounds more comfortable directing from the violin than under Lindberg’s baton, he is more sympathetic with the sound of the ACO, and he plays the Mozart with the clarity and eloquence that was lacking in the Dvorak recording.

 The violin concertos featured on this disc were written when Mozart was still a teenager, and both show clear signs of the operatic masterpieces to come; indeed, the first movement of the G major concerto resembles more an opera overture than a concerto. Tognetti does an excellent job in bringing out the vibrancy and youthful spontaneity of these works, and the ACO have a full but suitably transparent sound that gives Tognetti ample freedom to play with the nuances. Both concerti have been recorded by many of the great violinists both past and present, and in comparison there is nothing particularly striking about the tempi or characterisation of these performances. Tognetti does, however, perform his own cadenzas which gives an interesting insight into his take on the Mozart concerti. He is joined by the ACO’s principal violist Christopher Moore in a reading of the Sinfonia Concertante. This work is itself a novelty—it is generally regarded as the first major concertante work featuring the viola, and was written four years after the concerti featured on this disc. As a violist I may be biased, but for me the Sinfonia Concertante is the clear highlight of the disc; not only is the work more substantial than either concerto, the interplay between Tognetti, Moore and the ACO is seamless, and the collective sound is genuinely symphonic. The ACO again support the soloists expertly, and the overall perfomance compares favourably to any other available recording.

This disc is an excellent introduction to all of the performed works, and is perhaps Tognetti’s most impressive recording yet.

 

 


Volupte Music For Viola- Koechlin/ Jongen

Roger Benedict

Volupté is the latest release from Melba records, and features principal Sydney Symphony Orchestra violist Roger Benedict and pianist Timothy Young (known to local audiences as the pianist in Ensemble Liaison). This CD is in keeping with Melba's recent line of recordings—taking prominent Australian musicians and recording their performances of obscure 20th century French music to great acclaim. This is certainly the case with this disc, it features excellent premiere recordings of the viola works of Jongen and Koechlin. Undoubtedly the highlight of this disc is the Koechlin Sonata; the performance is satisfying on both immediate and repeated listening. It seems remarkable that this work has been recorded so rarely given the dearth of weighty early 20th century French viola music. The sonata is very tightly structured over the 4 movements and shows great awareness of the viola's idiosyncrasies, particularly in the outer slow movements. Benedict seems to have an excellent understanding of the soundscape of this music right from the opening moments of the sonata, and his sound throughout matches sympathetically with the piano. Often when the viola is recorded it gets swamped by the instruments that surround it, but the performers on this disc avoid this exceptionally well, particularly in the scherzo of the sonata, keeping a level of transparency in the enormous piano part such that we never lose the viola. This is even more impressively achieved in the case of Koechlin's delightful and seemingly Milhaud-inspired Quatre Petites Pieces (featuring horn player Ben Jacks). The influences of Debussy, Saint-Saëns and even Brahms are apparent in the Jongen compositions, and whilst they are useful additions to the viola repertoire, they lack the gravitas of the Koechlin to consider them deserving of mainstream performance. As works they are immediately appealing in that they have "catchy" melodies (perhaps explaining the decision to put these less weighty works at the end of the disc), but don't have as interesting a development of ideas as the Koechlin pieces, something which becomes glaringly apparent on a second listen. They are quite virtuosic for both viola and piano and in that regard both performers carry the difficulties of the works well whilst effectively maintaining the musical line. The playing throughout this disc is consistently excellent, and the disc is delightfully packaged—highly recommended.
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