Category Archives: CD

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.

Franz Schubert

Death and the Maiden Quartet

“Unfinished” Symphony

Goldstone & Clemmow (piano duet)

Divine Art dda 25125 TTP: 73’55”

 

The Chamber Eroica

Symphony No 3 in E Flat (Beethoven)

Version for piano quartet

Metier msvcd 2008

TTP: 49’01”

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

SchubertSchubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet is one of the composer’s most loved and frequently heard works; it had its origins in Schubert’s lied of the same name. It is also a work of central significance in a famous play. But having over the years listened to too many indifferent arrangements of this and similar works in versions for piano duet, I was sceptical of this recent release.

 

I’m happy to say though that my doubts rapidly evaporated as I listened to this recording; it’s a version of excellence which I recommend warmly.

 

Its opening pages come across with immense authority. It makes for engrossing listening. The contrasts between lulling episodes and moments suggestive of stark terror are impeccably handled. I’d like to think that if Schubert himself had had the opportunity to listen to the Goldstone Duo, he’d have approved not only of the performance but of the very real skill invested in making this arrangement so approachable. Laurels, too, to the sound engineers who score high at every turn.

 

In the second movement, the duo is in top form, allowing the music to speak for itself by avoiding any tendency to excessive “expression” which can so easily ruin the moment. It’s a fine foil for the finale which is informed by high musicianship. Throughout, discreet but effective pedalling and buoyancy of momentum make this a model of good taste.

 

Whether or not Schubert felt that the two movements of his Unfinished Symphony were in and of themselves a complete statement and not needing the addition of other movements, will be haggled over interminably by music scholars.

 

What is clear about this recording is the excellence of the playing not least the quality of the secondo accompaniment which is, as is the primo part, a model of good taste. It’s a delightful musical outcome, the players reaching for the stars. The second movement, too, is a model of good taste.

 

Goldstone has transcribed the third movement from Schubert’s sketches. It’s beautifully done and fits the overall presentation like a glove. Some of Schubert’s incidental music for Rosamunde is drawn on for the finale. This is pleasant enough but, but for all the care lavished on it both and performance, it is not in the same league, substance-wise.

 

HOW INCONVENIENT  and irritating concertgoing must have been for music aficionados in, say, the early 1800s if they lived away from cities or large towns.

 

Eroica BeethovenIf they’d read about Mr Beethoven’s astonishing new symphonies in, say, the early years of the 19th century, how would they have been able to listen to these works unless they lived in a city with a resident orchestra or one or other amateur band?

 

No electricity, no radio, no recordings, no TV existed then – nor had they yet been dreamed of. So it became standard practice for composers – or others –  to arrange large scale works for much smaller ensembles which made these works far more portable than would than would otherwise have been the case.

 

Here, for instance, we listen to Beethoven’s Eroica symphony in an 1807 transcription for piano quartet. And while it is obviously impossible for four players to convey the sound and overall impact of a full orchestra, the arrangement is so clever and the playing so skilled that even the most demanding of concertgoers would, I think, feel compelled to agree that in the absence of a full orchestra, this performance is an  impressive alternative.

 

Throughout, the playing is masterly and satisfying – and the recording engineers have done a first rate job. It’s well worth a place in a good CD collection.

Artemis Quartet

Mendelssohn String Quartets: No 2 (opus 13); No 3 (opus 44 No 1); No 6 (opus 80)

Erato 0825646366903

TPT: 87’ 41” (2 CD)

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

packshot artemisIn a more enlightened world than existed when Fanny – sister to Felix Mendelssohn – lived her tragically brief life, she’d have had far greater recognition as a composer than was the case in the mid-19th century. Women most certainly didn’t get a fair deal in those days. Indeed, to get her work into the public domain, Felix published some of his sister’s songs under HIS name! Apparently, that was just about the only practical way to get the songs known to the wider community.

 

But Felix and Fanny were not only siblings and very fine musicians. They were good friends  –  and when Fanny died, too early, her brother’s grief was overwhelming. He poured his sorrow into the writing of his string quartet opus 80 in F minor, one of his darkest works. And the Artemis musicians home in unerringly on its mournful essence. Certainly, it comes across with electrifying intensity.

 

There is about the music a barely controlled anguish, a breast-beating sense of bereavement. And in the second movement, bows bite strings to produce a grainy-toned, throbbing quality that sounds entirely right. In the adagio which follows, the Artemis ensemble is no less persuasive in evoking moods of hopelessness and despair.  I cannot imagine anyone failing to respond to this darkest of all Mendelssohn’s quartets which could be thought of as a requiem for Fanny.

 

From first note to last, the Artemis Quartet is entirely in sympathy with the work.

 

Mendelssohn’s Quartet No 3 in D occupies a very different mood world, much of it bracingly buoyant and rhythmically emphatic, as refreshing in its idiosyncratic way as a cold shower on a hot day. How convincingly and confidently the Artemis players draw the listener into the composer’s vibrant teenage world.  There’s a youthful audacity about the writing – and the Artemis musicians convey this with immense confidence and brio.