03_la_cenerentolaRossini - La Cenerentola

Joyce DiDonato; Juan Diego Florez; Gran Teatre del Liceu; Patrick Summers

Decca 074 3305

It is such a pleasure to enjoy this completely original, very imaginative and colourful DVD performance of the 24 year old Rossini’s comic Cinderella masterpiece completed under great pressure in a few weeks for the carnival season of 1817. Original indeed. What an inspired idea to bring in the ‘Comediants’, a group of itinerant players who give outdoor impromptu performances all over Catalonia much like in the Middle Ages. The overall effect is the work of Joan Fonts (director) and it’s like a comic book fairy tale with strong primary colours that are ever changing with mirrors and the magic of backlighting. One hilarious feature is a group of anthropomorphic rats constantly moving around in the background following and silently commenting on the action.

And it’s a musical triumph as well. The two principals, Joyce diDonato and Juan Diego Florez are top of the line today in terms of bel canto singing. American mezzo DiDonato easily conquers the fierce technical demands of Rossini fioraturas but is also capable of pathos and introspection to move audiences with the warmth of her voice. Juan Diego Florez’s voice is spectacular in the high flying tessitura and he throws out the high C’s with the greatest of ease. After his aria in the second act Si, ritrovarla, io giuro the audience goes simply hysterical.

There is no disappointment in the three supporting baritone/basso roles either. Perhaps veteran Italian basso Bruno de Simone (Don Magnifico) stands out in his characterization, irresistible comedy and bravura Rossinian pattering, a feature that Arthur Sullivan adopted later into his English operettas.

Indiana born conductor Patrick Sommers is fast becoming a force to reckon with, especially in bel canto repertoire. His unerring beat of metronomic precision and graceful and stylish tempos, sometimes at lightning speed, contribute to an outstandingly memorable evening.

Janos Gardonyi

01_gurreliederA new performance of Gurrelieder, Schoenberg’s Tristanesque narrative, is not so rare these days, but still of interest. Earlier this year Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted it with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall. Among the soloists is soprano Soile Isokoski singing Tove. Salonen appears to be less Romantic than, say Stokowski or Ferencsik, but achieves some exquisite balances between soloists and orchestra in the third part. The speaker in Herr Gänsefuss...” is Barbara Sukowa who is also in Abbado’s version (DG) in the role usually spoken by a male voice. The recording, issued by Signum (SIGCD173, 2 CD/SACDs) is lucid and dynamic.


02_beethoven_jansenPaavo Järvi has just finished a complete Beethoven Symphony cycle with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Bremen, for RCA. These are electrifying performances, bringing new life to these perennial warhorses. Violinist Janine Jansen joins this same cast in the Violin Concerto with stunning results in a new Decca release (4781530). Her performance belongs to the perfect group emerging from young performers but, unlike most of them, she maintains the listener’s undivided attention. Jansen combines ease and elegance with authority, conveying Beethoven’s genius directly. The Britten Violin Concerto follows with Järvi at the helm of the London Symphony. They make a perfect pairing and complement Jansen’s previous Decca recordings of core repertoire.


03_stravinskyThe Mariinsky Ballet’s performance of the meticulous re-construction of Nijinsky’s choreography and Roesch’s sets and costumes of the first performance of Le Sacre du Printemps, so enthusiastically reviewed here a few months ago, is now available on Blu-ray (BelAir BAC441). The high definition video makes an enormous difference, affecting a 3-D illusion, brilliantly drawing the viewer onto the stage mighty impressive, indeed. Fokine’s original Firebird of 1911 is included, as is the documentary on the extensive research to realise the originals.


04_richterCollectors know that there are many live performances of Pictures at an Exhibition played by Sviatoslav Richter, each being individual and different from the others, no two the same. Richter was known to abhor the studio and therefore most of his recordings are drawn from live performances. In 1958 however, Melodiya managed to record him in the studio under ideal conditions. That recording has recently re-appeared (Melodiya MEL CD 1000515) and I had the opportunity to re-visit this exuberant reading. Here one can appreciate the finger work that is sometimes blurred in the live recording. Comparing it to the 1958 Sofia live performance for instance reaffirms what we already know about Richter, namely that never plays the same piece the same way twice.


05_preyA MUST HAVE: The late Herman Prey, one of the last century’s greatest baritones, singing the three Schubert song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin, Schwanengesang, and Winterreise (C MAJOR 700208, 2 DVDs). Prey was known for his perfect delivery of German art songs including, of course, Schubert. Not only did he have the voice, he was a consummate musician. The living room settings here are ideal and the sound appropriately intimate. How much nicer this is than a concert hall.


06_tchaikovsky_2_filmsTwo Films, Christopher Nupen’s celebrated 1989 video on Tchaikovsky’s life and music, is, at last, available on DVD (Allegro Films A10CND). Presented in two segments; Tchaikovsky’s Women deals with his relationships with women who passed through his life and their effect on his mental well-being, segueing nicely into Fate, his states of mind and the ensuing compositions. This is not presented as an entertainment but as a journal of his life and some major works. As is usual, Nupen provides the narrative, deftly drawing the viewer (me) into watching the entire 156 minutes without interruption. This is an important document and I liked it a lot.


07_mariinsky_1812The Mariinsky Orchestra’s third CD on their own label is devoted to the music of Tchaikovsky (MAR 0503, CD/SACD). The 1812 Overture which opens the program is mighty impressive with the added cannons and bells heard as if from afar and not vying with the entire orchestra for sonic dominance. The Moscow Cantata, scored for soloists, chorus and orchestra, follows then the Marche Slave (sic), opus 31, the Festival Coronation March, and the Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem, opus 15. Recorded in their own hall earlier this year this album is outstanding in the excellence of the recorded sound, presenting a wide and deep sound stage, with every instrument and voice in natural perspective. The dynamic range, too, is impressive. Credit must go to the producer, James Mallinson, who is also responsible for the recordings of both the London Symphony and the Chicago Symphony orchestras on their own labels.


08_mahler_2Mahler’s Second Symphony with Chicago Symphony under Bernard Haitink continues their ongoing Mahler cycle with an outstanding performance recorded live earlier this year (CSO-RESOUND CSOR 901916, 2 CD/SACD discs). This is not an angst-ridden performance but a well considered interpretation from a Mahler conductor who has performed this work countless times and has already two performances in the catalogue. This is one of the very greatest orchestras and their playing is outstanding by any standards. Again, the recording itself is state-of-the-art, dynamic with breathtaking three dimensional perspectives that transports listeners to the best seats in Symphony Hall.


09_nutcrackerThe San Francisco Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker is but one of the countless different ways Tchaikovsky’s perennial favourite is offered to delight young and old alike. The 2008 staging was seen on PBS last year but Blu-ray enthusiasts will be delighted with the release on OpusArte, looking and sounding better than witnessed on TV (OA BD7044 D). In addition to an illustrated synopsis, there are interviews with the choreographer, the scenic designer and the costume designer. Also a documentary on the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco. A good package.

06_i_musici_tchaikovskyTchaikovsky - Souvenir de Florence

I Musici de Montreal; Yuli Turovsky

Analekta AN 2 9954

It was during his second visit to Italy’s sunny skies in 1890 that Tchaikovsky composed his string sextet in d minor, Op.70, appropriately titled Souvenir de Florence. Initially dissatisfied with it, he ultimately revised the piece and we have it here as arranged for string orchestra, along with the much earlier String Quartet Op.11 with I Musici de Montréal under the leadership of Yuli Turovsky.

What a fresh and vigorous sound IMM achieves on this recording! While always displaying a formidable precision, the group also demonstrates a keen sensitivity to the counterpoint. Melodic lines are carefully delineated, and there is none of the muddiness that can characterize string playing from time to time. This element of clarity is nowhere more evident than in the lively finale, which to me, always sounds more Slavic than Italian.

The String Quartet in D major is a considerably earlier work, written in 1871. Today, the piece is most famous for the well-known slow movement, the “Andante Cantabile”. Here, the augmented size of the ensemble, resulting in a lusher sound, seems particularly suited to this lyrical music which apparently brought Leo Tolstoy to tears upon first hearing it!

Kudos should also go to the engineering team for its fine technical work, and also for their decision (if indeed it was theirs) to record the disc at the Église Saint-Mathieu de Beloeil. The acoustics in this venerable 113-year old building are sublime and give a wonderfully resonant sound throughout, an element that further enhances an already great performance.


05_shaham_sarasateSarasate - Virtuoso Violin Works

Gil Shaham; Adele Anthony

Canary Classics CC07

By all accounts, Pablo de Sarasate must have been quite spectacular. One of the post-Paganini European virtuosi of the late 1800s, he dazzled audiences, critics and contemporaries alike, and not just with his playing. Like several of his fellow violinists – Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski in particular – Sarasate produced many outstanding compositions, and their warmth and brilliance is testimony to his playing ability.

Gil Shaham took the opportunity afforded by the centenary of Sarasate’s death in 2008 to present several concert performances of his works, culminating in the Sarasateada festival in Valladolid, Spain, last November. This latest CD on Shaham’s own Canary Classics label was recorded at the festival, and also features Shaham’s wife, the Australian violinist Adele Anthony.

Ysaÿe noted that it was Sarasate “who taught us how to play exactly”, and precision is certainly the first requirement if these pieces are going to be performed successfully. No worries here on that score. Shaham is brilliant in the four live orchestral performances with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Castilla y Leon under Alejandro Posada: the Carmen Fantasy; Zigeunerweisen; a somewhat bland Leo Blech orchestration of Zortica; and – with Anthony - the scintillating duet Navarra.

Anthony plays three of the eight outstanding tracks with pianist Akira Eguchi – Song of the Nightingale; Airs Ecossais; and Introduction and Tarantella - and certainly isn’t ‘second fiddle’ here in any respect. Shaham’s solo tracks are Habanera, Zapateado, Romanza Andaluza, Capricho Vasco, and Gavota de Mignon, and his playing standard never waivers.

Both players use a Stradivarius violin – Shaham the 1699 “Countess Polignac” and Anthony a 1728 instrument - and their richness in the lower register and brightness in the upper, while possibly more contrasted in Shaham’s playing, are very similar.

The booklet notes are by the always-reliable Eric Wen and nicely complement this delightful disc.

04_arghamanyan_lisztLiszt; Rachmaninov - Sonatas

Nareh Arghamanyan

Analekta AN 2 8762

Many years back I was fortunate to see young a Martha Argerich in concert and I recall hardly being able to sleep that night. So when I first listened to this debut recording of 20 year old Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan I had only one wish and that was to see her performing in person as I had hopes of a new divine Martha. Fast forward now to the miracle of the Internet.

I‘ve already enjoyed three of her video performances seeing how she becomes symbiotic with the music, swaying her girlish, fragile body. Her seemingly gentle hands produce titanic sounds without any of the mannerisms and showiness of some pianists of great commercial appeal I don’t want to mention.

Her latest achievement is winning the 1st prize (piano) of the prestigious Montreal International Music Competition in 2008, but she has been winning competitions since age 11. In fact Analekta is fortunate in securing this young lady at this time as I predict her fame will skyrocket and the big recording giants will be clamouring to get her.

Both of the sonatas she plays are murderously difficult, “alternately passionate, desperate, energetic and tender with hurricanes of octaves seething with raw energy” (Lucie Renaud). They are prime examples of the Romantic sonata invented by Liszt and furthered by Rachmaninov. The strict sonata form is replaced by an inner subliminal logic, of ebb and flow, but it must be kept in balance. This is something only the greatest pianists like Ms Arghamanyan with her God given gifts are capable of.


03_fischer_schubertSchubert - Complete works for Violin and Piano, Volume 1

Julia Fischer; Martin Helmchen

PentaTone PTC 5186 347

Julia Fischer is outstanding in this Super Audio CD. The three sonatas featured on this disc – D.384 in D, D.385 in A minor, and D.408 in G minor – date from 1816, but despite being early works they exhibit all the characteristics of the mature Schubert. The Rondo Brillant D.895 from 1826 completes the disc.

Despite the constant flow of irrepressible melody there is always a sense of wistfulness and drama lying just beneath the surface of Schubert’s music, and Fischer’s beautifully-judged performance captures this perfectly, with a beautiful clear tone, sensitive vibrato, and a fine range of dynamics. The recording balance is excellent, with clean and intelligent piano support from Martin Helmchen.

The booklet notes unfortunately scream “Translation!” at times – the Pseud’s Corner column in the old Private Eye magazine would have had a field day with lines like “In truth, renewed energy slumbers within the tangled web of the dialogue interwoven in the chamber music” – but the notes that matter are on the CD… and they’re just wonderful.

Volume 2 is slated for release in April 2010; as the remaining Schubert works for violin and piano aren’t sufficient to fill a CD, it will apparently feature Fischer in a Schubert piano duet. Shouldn’t be a problem - she performed the Grieg Piano Concerto in Frankfurt last year!

02_bach_clavierbungBach - Clavierubung II

Alexander Weimann

ATMA ACD2 2603

Seldom can there have been a more sombre cover than on this CD. Dressed in black, soloist Alexander Weimann is photographed against a dark green/black background. One wonders why.

The theme of Clavierubung II is duality, some would say polarity. Bach chooses two works in highly contrasting keynotes but even then neither work can be described as entirely solemn.

The Italian Concerto in F Major starts with a spirited movement - for which no indication is given. It may not have been written to equal the exhilarating speed of the Presto but its demands on the player are still great. The Andante, the middle of the three movements, does demonstrate polarity within a single work. It is slow, almost out of place on this CD.

Bach’s Overture in the French style in B Minor, much the greater part of the CD, starts with an Ouverture; if anyone expects a gentle introduction to the main work, they will find this movement breath-taking.

Next are the movements named after the great French country dances of the Renaissance and Baroque. Here are the Gavotte, Passepied, Sarabande and others. All make their transition from countryside to court, recognisable for their mainly cheerful and lively characteristics.

Enjoy Bach’s interpretation of duality and Alexander Weimann’s skills which have made him one of the most sought-after baroque instrumentalists - and ignore that depressing cover.

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