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Mon, 30 May 2005

Wagner, Das Rheingold

Falk Struckmann, Graham Clark, Gunter von Kannen,
Lioba Braun, Kwanchui Youn
Bertrand de Billy
Harry Kupfer
2 DVD's, Opus Arte

This is the prelude to Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle, a three day extravaganza of kunstartwerke (total art work), a Wagner conception that involved a flowing, non-repetitive form of music with attention to every detail of staging and performance. The words "control freak" apply!

One of the interests in reasonably frequently performed pieces is the interpretation: what have the organisers made of all this? Sometimes, these days, we have politically correct versions that would make the authors utter curses from the grave, and at others there are versions that play around with presentation in such a way as to suggest the passing whims of a teenager -- totally skin deep.

This performance is a bit of a mixture. The staging and costumes suggest the teenager but the performance is, if not perfectly classically Wagnerian (and if not, why bother?) at least a close cousin.

All of this, of course, is relevant on a DVD where it isn't on CD -- we can see what's going on. Once we can see, it colours our judgement. And tastes differ markedly on what is good and bad visually. This isn't bad, it's just not a classic performance. (Count K)

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Sanctuary, the heart has its reasons

Peter Togni, Christoph Both,
Jeff Reilly, Sanctuary String Orchestra
Alain Trudel
LP, Warner Classics

This is a modern piece inspired by the words of Blaise Pascal "Le cour a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait point"... The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. The words were written in 1654 as the great scientist left science to pursue philospophy and theology.

And this is the humanist message that the music seeks to convey "perhaps more appropriate at the beginning of the twenty-first century than it was then."

The music is flowing and somewhat mournful and has a pared-back romantic feel to it to start with. Not that it's minimalist at all, it just doesn't have the largeness that surfaced in a lot of Romantic pieces. To some extent people's liking of this might be coloured by their likes of different instruments. There is, for example, quite a lot of clarinet and then quite a lot of cello.

Later, the feel becomes less Romantic and more sparse and there's an interesting mix of traditional harmony and more out there sorts of things.

It is nicely done, with both textural and harmonic interest and without that grating modernity that just wants to be noticed and doesn't particularly care how that end is achieved.

(Count K)

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Romantic Violin

The Romantic Violin Concerto - 5
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor	Violin Concerto in G minor Op.80 [31.55]
Sir Arthur Somervell		Violin Concerto in G minor [32.59]
Anthony Marwood - violin
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martin Brabbins

Recorded in Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh, Scotland on 24 and 25 
February 2004
HYPERION CDA67420 [65.00]

Hyperion's lovely series of lesser known Romantic Violin Concertos comes to England with volume five and presents works by two very different composers, both of whom have reputations far smaller than their music suggests that they deserve.

Coleridge-Taylor is undoubtedly one of the most interesting musical figures of his time. Born in Croydon in 1875 his mother was English and his father a doctor from Sierra Leone. His father returned to his native land when Samuel was young and his mother remarried. He thus grew up in late Victorian England as the most unusual phenomenon, a black child of a white family. One might think that this would have been some problem in the racial climate of the time. Instead, Coleridge-Taylor was rapidly spotted as musically talented and studied the violin and sang in local church choirs. Taken up by a local benefactor, Colonel Walters, he studied violin at the Royal College of Music, later becoming a favourite student of no less than Stanford - that bastion of the compositional establishment. By the time Coleridge-Taylor was 20, Stanford had taken his Clarinet Quintet to show to Joachim in Berlin. Elgar commissioned Coleridge-Taylor to compose a work for the 1898 Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester. The appearance of a black composer in the cathedral gained a most cordial reception and wide press coverage. Success followed success, with prominent visits to the USA in the last two years of his life. Unfortunately he did not survive a bout of pneumonia and died in 1912 aged only 37.

The violin concerto was Coleridge-Taylor's last major work, receiving its premiere five weeks after his death. Although well received both in England and the USA, it was rapidly and inexplicably forgotten, and only revived in 1980 in a concert to mark the centenary of the Guildhall School of Music, where Coleridge-Taylor had taught. A large scale, classically inspired work, it is quite incredible that there is no regular place in the repertoire for this concerto. Full of genial themes and imaginative episodic writing, it here receives a glowing testament of a performance from Anthony Marwood and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The violin is handled as a melodic instrument par excellence and carefully balanced against the orchestra. No particularly prominent fireworks, but a serious-minded work given a completely convincing performance.

In contrast to Coleridge-Taylor's exoticism and popularity but constant financial difficulty (not helped by selling the copyright of his cantata Hiawatha for #15 outright, unrealising that it would go on to sell over 140,000 copies before the First World War) Sir Arthur Somervell spent his career as a respected senior civil servant, composing in his spare time, and living comfortably in a large house in Kensington Square, near to Sir Hubert Parry. His violin concerto was written in 1930 and is resolutely romantic in spirit. It was well received and had numerous performances around England through the 1930's before, like the Coleridge-Taylor, being inexplicably forgotten. This recording is the first time it has been heard in more than half a century.

Again, this is such a shame. A mighty first movement nearly 20 minutes long shows Somervell as quite capable of serious development and sustained symphonic thought. A graceful adagio follows, contrasting the violin in its most elegiac mood with rich string and solemn wind/brass passages. This is distinctly English music, but not overloaded with resonances of Elgar. There is a distinctive voice here and considerable technical accomplishment in the composition. The finale is a bucolic dance with echoes of the finale of Mendelssohn's concerto. Tovey described this movement as "the orchestra seeming to stretch itself in a slow yawn while the solo violin blows smoke-rings" and this sense of ease is prominent on this recording.

Hyperion is clearly onto a winner here. Marwood's affinity with this music, and Brabbins' convincing marshalling of the orchestra serve these neglected works well. This is a beautifully made disc, and with any luck, it might push these great concerti back onto the concert platform. Any audience should be thankful for the experience if that happens.

(c) 2005 Peter Wells

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Reger, Bach and Telemann Variations

Max Reger (1873-1916)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.S. Bach op.81 [30.14]
Variations and fugue on a Theme of G.P. Telemann Op.134 [39.55]

Mark Latimer - piano

Recorded in All SaintsÕ Church, Petersham, England on 4 & 5 April 1994
Warner Classics 2564 61718-2 [70.38]

If heÕs remembered at all, and by most people he isnÕt, Max Reger is regarded as a composer who wrote music for big German organs. He is also remembered, by people more interested in him, as one of the early adherents to the religion of J.S. Bach. Many of his great organ works are based on the structures and styles of the organ works of Bach, and an interest in counterpoint, pretty rare in the opera-obsessed late 19th/early 20th century, (even in Germany) singled Reger out for polarisation of opinion by the popular authorities of the day. This was a fate he shared with that other great organist and Bachophile, the Frenchman Cesar Franck. Apart from his organ works, Reger wrote a large quantity of piano music, but this is rarely heard. Here is an opportunity to do something about it. Mark LatimerÕs performance of these massive sets of variations is nothing less than consummate and the music itself is not only eminently listenable, but fascinating in construction.

The Bach variations, dating from 1904, are the earlier work and here Reger shows not only seemingly inexhaustible invention across the 14 variations, but an even more impressive grasp of massive architectural form, all 14 variations melding into a gigantic whole. The colossal fugue that concludes the work consists of two seemingly independent yet interdependent four-part fugues, followed by the most spectacular denouement integrating them both. Frankly, to the pianistically incompetent listener it is impossible to see how Latimer manages to play all the notes, let alone all the music those notes imply. However, he seems able to throw these vast works around with apparent ease and a constantly beautiful, if necessarily powerful, tone. This contrast is apparent in the theme of the Bach variations Š a slow aria from Cantata 128 Š in which Latimer makes the opening, quiet, chords shine with a luminescence that is probably only possible with the hands of an absolute master on a large Steinway piano. The excellent recording quality and subtle incorporation of the recording venueÕs acoustic goes no small way to assist.

The slightly later Telemann Variations, at nearly 40minutes long (including the noted decision to arbitrarily omit the second half repeats to make the work fit on a CD) is a consummate work of variation writing. Lighter in style than the Bach Variations, it nonetheless allows Reger to run the gamut of emotions and colours, as well as pianistic techniques, based on a fairly simple Minuet theme from one of TelemannÕs famous Tafelmusik suites. Mark Latimer has the measure of this music just as much as in the Bach and allows the joyful virtuosity to gambol about without hindrance. The technical display of his playing is quite astonishing, and the fugue, once thought to be unplayable, makes a fitting culmination. Exceptionally impressive music, played with all the style it demands makes this a fascinating and highly recommendable release.

© 2005 Peter Wells

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Proms

various, The Last Night of the Proms 2004
Sir Thomas Allen, Simon Preston
David Pyatt
BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin
recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall
2 CD's, Warner Classics

The Proms are adored by some and loathed by others. The latter group see it as an example of dumbing down and the former see it as approachable and fun. Indeed, there's a special feel to the Prom series and to the last night in particular that makes it an endearing event.

And there is quite a lot of music too. On these two disks we have Dvorak, Straus, Vaughan Williams, Rodgers, Porter (Cole), Sousa, Edgar (of course!), and Puccini and Parry, amongst others. The diversity in this context is a must. What would the Proms last night be without a contrasting collection of pieces with very tenuous, if any, ties?

(Count K)

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Michael Haydn

Requiem Pro Defuncto Archepiscopo Sigismondo
Missa In Honorem Sanctae Ursulae
Choir of the King's Consort
Robert King
2 CD's, Hyperion

You're thinking Haydn? Was Michael his first name? It was not. Michael is the less famous brother who nevertheless was regarded as being superior in the field of sacred music. He, unlike his more famous brother and Mozart, stayed in Saltzburg and spent over forty years in the same position amongst the musical elite in Catholic Saltzburg.

The requiem here is for the lamented death of an Archbishop who was his boss. It also came at a time of greatly added grief as his baby daughter had just died before the age of one. Parallels are taken between this great work and Mozart's later unfinished Requiem but other than the fact that Mozart would have heard this piece, and that he was able to recall whole passages of music years later after one hearing, there is no particular evidence to say that this requiem was other than an influence.

The second piece is a Mass for a Benedictine Abbey where a friend of his was taking her final vows. This is regarded as one of Haydn's finest late masses so this couple of CD's is well worth having. (Count K)

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Handel, The Triumph ...

G.F. Handel, 
The Time of Triumph and Truth
Gillian Fisher, Emma Kirkby
Charles Brett, Ian Partridge
Stephen Varcoe
The London Handel Choir and Orchestra
Denys Darlow

This oratorio was first performed at the Covent Garden Theatre in London in 1757, and was performed again twice during Handel's last active season of 1758. In 1759 he died.

As was not unknown with Handel, the piece had mostly been written some years earlier. In order for us to see that Handel was in no way "cheating" by doing this we have to look at the practise of the times but, more importantly, we need to remember that Handel was an impressario, a producer, as well as being a fine composer. His job, as he would have seen it, was to produce a show ... a show that people would pay money to attend.

The birth of this Oratorio seems to have been in 1707, when he was twenty-two. He was in Rome and had attracted the patronage of the Cardinals Pamfilli and Ottoboni. He composed an Oratorio for which Cardinal Pamfilli wrote the text. In 1737 Handel did further work on it and then later a new libretto was substituted and more changes made.

The London Handel Choir and Orchestra are in fine form on this recording. You might expect anything with Emma Kirkby in it would be much better than acceptable, and so it is. (Count K)

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Boyce, Eight Symphonies

William Boyce
Eight Symphonies, Op. 2
Aradia Ensemble
Kevin Mallon
LP, Naxos

William Boyce (1711-1779) was a chorister at St. Paul's Catherdral before being apprenticed to Maurice Green to study the organ. He is known for his church music for the Church of England and also this collection of symphonies.

Handel was the, pardon me, big noise at the time and it was only after the great man's death in 1759 that Boyce began to get official engagements such as an anthem for the death of George II.

While Boyce's master, Greene, had a long running disagreement with Handel, Boyce himself appreciated his work and said of his borrowings that he took other men's pebbles and turned them into diamonds.

Boyce's work in general lacks the flourishing grace of Handel or the thematic strength but it is very pretty nevertheless.

The ensemble that brings us this collection is from Toronto, Canada and they make a good fist of it although I'm not sure that all the nuances haven't been a little steamrollered. (Count K)

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Bach, Cantatas

J.S. Bach, Cantatas from Leipzig 1724
BWV 5, 80, 115
Bach Collegium Japan
Masaaki Suzuki
LP, BIS

It's interesting how the politics of religion reveal themselves time after time in Western music. In one of these gorgeous cantatas the triumphalism of the Reformation cantata was added to considerably by Bach's eldest son who was living in a Lutheran area when the original composition had been made where the local leading citizen had converted to Catholicism because, it is said, of ambitions in Poland. It was presumed that Bach himself had been the author of the triumphal bits and it wasn't until later that the truth was discovered.

Although Bach might use Martin Luther's words, he, for me at least, completely transends any liturgical difficulties or differences in dogma between flavours of Christianity. Here is the noble, the good, the optimistic, and the beautiful. Really, one doesn't need to know any more and I suppose that attitude fits in well with today's secular society, but, on my part, that's an accident.

This is a Japanese production sponsored by NEC and it really is very good. People used to complain that Japanese players were a little like the French doing rock 'n' roll -- they got the moves but otherwise just didn't get it at all. This wasn't fair but did have some truth to it especially when dealing with items from the keyboard repertoire. It was a little like the admirable honour-thy-work attitude left little room for the subtlties of expression which mark the truely great performances.

There is nothing mechanical about this performance. It's a credit to all concerned.

(Count K)

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