Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky); Album for the Young (Tchaikowsky)

Simon Tedeschi (piano)

ABC CLASSICS  4811963

TPT: 77’44”

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

TedeschiIf Mussorgsky had not written Pictures at an Exhibition, it is very likely that the  drawings and paintings by the composer’s friend Victor Hartmann would have faded into obscurity long ago. But Mussorgsky’s musical responses to his mate’s pictures have given the latter an immortality they don’t really deserve. The music is immensely more satisfying than Hartmann’s often-prosaic drawings. Now, Mussorgsky’s work has become a staple of the repertoire not only as a set of piano pieces but also in various orchestral guises.

 

I’ve lost count of the number of performances of Pictures I’ve listened to over the decades – and Tedeschi’s recording is well to the forefront of these. It eschews virtuosity for its own sake and it’s clear that much thought has been devoted to mood and tone colouring.

 

Tedeschi very effectively evokes the sinister, malevolent nature of Gnomus – and

solemnity pervades his account of The Old Castle. Here, Tedeschi clothes notes in beautifully mellow tone; the playing has an unhurried, soothing and near-hypnotic quality.

 

There’s a delightful, peekaboo quality of children playing and quarrelling in Tuileries. And in Bydlo, the simulation of a lumbering, heavy, creaking ox cart is entirely convincing as is Tedeschi’s account of the delightfully delicate, chirping nonsense that is the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.

 

In Goldenberg and Schmuyle, there’s a most convincing contrast of moods in turn supercilious and wheedling. And in Limoges, the market place, where there’s much raucous bargaining between housewives and stallholders, the presentation is beyond reproach, as it is in Mussorgsky’s take on the catacombs of Rome.

 

Also on record is Tchaikowsky’s Album for the Young. Frequently, one or other of this set of 24 short pieces is played by children at local eisteddfodau. Tedeschi plays them beautifully.

Henri Herz: Piano Concerto No 2

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra

Howard Shelley (conductor/ piano)

Hyperion CDA68100

TPT: 65’ 10”

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

 

 

Henri Herz is not a great composer: his lack of depth rules him out of contention. But – and it is a big but – he is a first rate craftsman. Notwithstanding ideas and their development which incline towards the superficial, Herz’s concertos are put together with real skill. He makes no pretensions to profundity. Pleasant entertainment is his goal – and in that role he is impressive.  And when a pianist and conductor like Howard Shelley takes it on, he succeeds in investing even the most trivial succession of notes with such fluency and charm, that even the fussiest commentator would surely have to concede that what Herz lacks in depth, he makes up for in pleasing melody and attractive sound colours.

 

OrchestraOffered with great elan by the soloist and a Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra very much on its collective toes – and skilled sound engineers to boot – the result is beguiling: music ideal to relax to after a tough day at the office.

 

Throughout, TSO strings are in top form, particularly in the introduction to the central andantino movement of Herz’s concerto. And in the finale which comes across as a delicious folksy dance, both soloist and orchestra are in fine fettle.

 

Listen carefully to Shelley’s playing:  it’s a joy. The fluent finesse with which he marshals streams of notes is impeccable – and, style-wise, Shelley never puts a foot  – or finger – wrong. In a special sense, Shelley is a conjuror, taking often ho-hum material and making it consistently appealing.

 

Immaculately spun trills and splendid ensemble make of Herz’s Grande Polonaise Brillante opus 50 a memorable listening experience – so much so that at least for the duration of the piece, it sounds significantly better than it in fact is – and that is a hallmark of persuasive artistry. Listening to Herz’s Fantaisie et variations sur la marche d’Otello de Rossini is the sonic equivalent of placing a best-quality bonbon on the tongue. Its pleasures are brief but they linger in the imagination.

 

In the other two stand-alone works, the content is, again, mostly froth and bubble – but presented with disarming control and a sense of what works well in musical terms.

 

This recording underscores yet again that Shelley and the TSO have a marriage made in musical heaven.

Eric Zeisl

UCLA Philharmonia cond. Neal Stulberg

Antonio Lysy (cello)

Yarlung Records 96820

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

During intermission at a recent concert, I asked a number of people at random if they knew who Eric Zeisl was. Two looked at me blankly and shrugged their shoulders, saying they’d never before heard the name. Another thought he had something to do with the Bauhaus Movement – and one wondered if he was a research scientist. No-one got it right – and for this reason alone, this compact disc is timely and certainly worth listening to.

 

Eric ZeislQuite apart from his credentials as a composer, Zeisl was connected to Arnold Schoenberg via the marriage of his daughter Barbara to Ronald, Schoenberg’s son.

 

(As is increasingly known these days, Barbara and Ronald’s son E. Randol Schoenberg is an attorney specialising in the recovery of art works stolen by the nazis. His most celebrated case relates, inter alia, to the famous painting The Woman in Gold by Gustav Klimt which inspired a recent movie in which Helen Mirren portrays Maria Altmann, the legal owner who, in spite of the Austrian government’s determination not to give up its ill gotten gains, secured, as a result of Randol’s powerful advocacy, the return to her of the Klimt portrait.)

 

Despite a good familial relationship between the two composers, Zeisl and Schoenberg inhabited strikingly different aesthetic and philosophical worlds. Schoenberg’s music rocked the-then musical establishment and for decades afterwards.  Although most of Schoenberg’s works have been recorded, this is far from the case in relation to Zeisl’s ouvre. So this compact disc is invaluable. It will bring to a new generation an appreciation of music that needs to be far better known.

 

Zeisl’s Kleine Sinfonie ‘after pictures of Roswitha Bitterlich’ makes for gripping listening. Bitterlich, now in her nineties and living in Brazil, was extraordinarily precocious, a mere 14 years old at the time of creating the four paintings which so inspired Zeisl. In fact, after viewing them for the first time, he hurried home and got down to work, completing the four-movement work, based on the four paintings, in four days!

 

Perhaps this accounts, if only in part, for the vividness of the music which doesn’t so much attract the attention as seize it.

 

Its first movement – The Madman – is couched in harsh, abrasive terms, radiating a sense of disorder, urgency and conflict. Much of it could be thought of as a gritty, in-your-face march macabre – and conductor Neal Stulberg takes the young players of the UCLA Philharmonia through a riveting reading. There is as well a sad, romantic violin melody.

 

Fascinating liner notes include images of three of the four Bitterlich paintings which inspired the first three movements; this visual prompt makes a real difference in a first encounter with the music. I’d have liked to see, as well, an image of Expulsion of the Saints which inspired the finale.

 

Bitterlich’s Dead Sinners inspired Zeisl to write music that eerily suggest lost, hapless souls in torment and Neal Stulberg takes the UCLA Philharmonia impressively through its doom-laden measures. And trombone and horn give point and meaning to the picture showing two mourners gorging themselves with food and liquor at a wake.

And in the final movement, the players do wonders in focussing on Zeisl’s many evocations of spiritual anguish.

 

French-Horn-PlayersZeisl’s Concerto Grosso has about it the sonic aura one associates with, say, some of Ernest Bloch’s Hebraic-themed works – or a soundtrack one might associate with a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic. As well, there’s the occasional grating dissonance that sets the teeth on edge. Throughout, Antonio Lysy is in impressive form, the solo line beautifully shaped and confidently stated, his bowing a model of its kind. Certainly, both soloist and UCLA Philharmonia respond to Neal Stulberg’s direction in a consistently meaningful way. Horns are especially fine.

 

Whether articulating the nimble, darting utterances that make of the central scherzo a rather wild and perhaps drunken dance – or articulating the variations that comprise the finale with complete mastery – it’s clear that all concerned are at the top of their game. Zeisl reserves some of his most satisfying ideas for the variations which are

the sonic equivalent of the contents of an Ali Baba’s cave.

 

Sadly, Zeisl never heard his Concerto Grosso which he wrote in 1955/1956; it was dedicated to Gregor Piatigorsky. Its first airing was at the Zeisl Memorial Concert in 1959 in Los Angeles. Thereafter, it returned once more to limbo until 2012 when it was the prime work at a concert described as a Celebration of Eric Zeisl concert.

 

I hope this fine recording is heard by many. It certainly deserves to be.

Black Swan Theatre Company

 

Extinction (Hannie Rayson)

State Theatre of W.A.

reviewed by Sophie Saxe-Lehrman

 

Too infrequently, a new play is mounted which has the seemingly effortless ability to draw the viewer –  in the most meaningful way  – into the world created by the dramatist.

 

BSSTC Extinction Production ImagesThis was very much the case with Stuart Halusz’s sure and sensitive directorial touch and a cast of four who brought Hannie Rayson’s play to consistently convincing life ie apart from a curious feature: siblings whose accents were so strikingly different that they sounded as if from utterly different families, utterly different countries for that matter.

 

This curious dichotomy aside, on-stage conversations were invariably engrossing – and one sensed also a total absorption by the audience into Rayson’s idiosyncratic theatre-world.

 

Central to the play is the fate of a seriously endangered mammal – the quoll – which serves as the focal point for much of Act 1. One of these rare creatures has been injured in a road accident and has been brought to a veterinary clinic – and is being looked after by a veterinary nurse. The injured animal has been brought in by the driver of the car which caused the injuries. By a curious co-incidence, he is a senior executive of a mining corporation which plans to start digging in areas where the quoll is at its most vulnerable.

 

Rayson has a good ear for conversation; her lines draw one almost at once into an intriguing mood-world. It is rather like eavesdropping on private conversations – and fascinating ones to boot. Of course, even the best lines can be a turn-off if they’re delivered indifferently. But on this crucial count, the cast scored impressively.

 

Not the least of the pleasures of this production is its seamless continuity with both  actors and stage personnel soundlessly and rapidly moving props around and on or off a darkened stage. And lighting design is one of the production’s best features, subtly underscoring mood and drawing the viewer into the unfolding story.

 

It was a pleasure to experience stage craft of such high order