Monthly Archives: April 2003

The Abduction from the Seraglio (Mozart)

The Abduction from the Seraglio (Mozart)


W.A.Opera Company and Chorus
W.A.Symphony Orchestra
His Majesty’s Theatre

reviewed by Neville Cohn

A disconcerting and striking aspect of this co-production between Opera Australia and the W.A.Opera Company of Mozart’s Il Seraglio (which is set in an anonymous, modern-day country in the Middle East) is that the subservience of women in much of this part of the world right now seems little different to what it was in Mozart’s day more than two centuries ago.

As women shrouded by traditional robes (with, in this production, curious, helmet-like masks in lieu of veils) came onstage in Act 1 against a backdrop of a dusty, begrimed, neon-lit airport building, it was a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

But in this updated production of Mozart’s sparkling opera, there’s one woman who, in her refusal to be cowed or to accept secondary status, is feistiness personified. Soprano Rachel Durkin played the role of Blondchen as if it had been written to her. As a Britisher captured by Pasha Selim and almost unrecognisable as a Marilyn Monroe clone with blonde wig, hip-hugging pink pants and very high heels, she strutted about the stage as if it was her natural milieu.

In vocal terms, this young singer has come forward impressively. Her voice, with its agility, suppleness and projection, has improved noticeably, all auguring well for an operatic career of substance. And a gift for comedy, apparent in some of her earlier performances, was here hilariously evident. Certainly, she made the most of her lines in this most charming of singspielen.

Merlyn Quaife, that veteran of numberless opera productions, sang Constanza with a depth of expressiveness and grasp of style that had the touch of distinction. All kinds of martyrs, better known as Martern aller Arten, was informed by a mood of bold defiance; it was a ringing endorsement of Quaife’s musicianly skill. Elsewhere, there was an occasional lack of clear definition in high-speed passagework and some loss of power towards the lower end of the range.

In visual terms, Monte Jaffe made the most of the richly farcical role of Osmin who oversees the harem where Constanza and Blondchen have been unwillingly confined. Jaffe’s voice has a richly sonorous quality and he has a real feel for what works in comic terms but at times his diction lacked clarity, resulting in the loss of more than a few laughs. He was armed to the teeth, as were the gentlemen of the chorus, all wearing turbans, toting rifles and, with some exceptions, looking fierce and dangerous.

David Hamilton seemed positively to relish the role of Pedrillo, another of the Pasha’s captives and boyfriend of Blondchen. And David Hobson as Belmonte brought a nice touch of ardour to the role. James Sellis made of Selim Pasha (a non-singing role) a figure of considerable dignity and even compassion.

Apart from moments in the overture when upper strings sounded under pressure attempting to fit rapid semiquaver note groups into the overall rhythmic framework, a much reduced W.A. Symphony Orchestra responded alertly to Richard Mills’ direction in the pit. The woodwind choir was very much up to the mark but strings often sounded underpowered and could, to advantage, have been strengthened by a few more players.

Michael Gow’s directorial touch was everywhere apparent. There was much to please and intrigue the eye, not least Robert Kemp’s set designs. That for Act 1 was an inspiration, an airport arrivals hall that had about it a tatty, rundown look which had the ring of truth about it. So, too, did a chorus tableau of airline personnel including pilots, stewardesses in a uniform strikingly reminiscent of a real life Middle Eastern airline plying between the Gulf and Perth, and female passengers shrouded in black and carrying bulging bags of duty-free goods. Kemp’s Act II design – a spacious, palatial interior – was no less effective with its attention to fine detail. Also adding to a production that was consistently appealing in visual terms were Kemp’s costume designs and Nick Schlieper’s lighting that did much to enhance atmosphere.

© 2003




Carl Orff Carmina Burana


Sara Macliver, soprano
Jonathan Summers, baritone
Paul McMahon, tenor
Synergy Percussion
Australian Virtuosi
Sydney Children’s Choir
Antony Walker, conductor

CD: ABC Classics
472 481-2

reviewed by Anne Hodgson

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation should make more of the fact that this is one of the rare recordings of the non-orchestral version of this notorious work. The arrangement which Orff made for two choruses, three soloists, percussion and two pianos loses absolutely nothing of the work’s fundamental spirit and direct appeal to the listeners’ emotional responses. Despite the absence of the familiar orchestral colour, this performance is vibrant, exciting and completely fascinating. Although in terms of numbers the ensemble on this recording ranks far below the massed forces of the better-known orchestral version, it is so accomplished a presentation that there is no need to make comparisons.

The members of the vocal group Cantillation meet the very heavy demands of the score with great facility and technical expertise and are unfailingly strong in their central part, calling on a wide range of expression from the most delicate to the heartily robust, while the essential lighter vocal colour is provided by the excellently controlled Sydney Children’s Choir, although their involvement in the soprano’s dilemma of choice is perhaps a little clinical.

Tenor Paul McMahon is a beautifully pathetic cooked swan, singing in the falsetto range with remarkable ease and clarity, and soprano Sara Macliver shows both technical excellence and a definite sense of character, despite her comparatively brief part in the work. If one is looking for a memorable Abbot of Cockaigne, one need look no further than baritone Jonathon Summers, who performs his more extensive role with great artistry, skill and a very appealing element of personification.

The instrumental parts of this performance of Carmina Burana are provided by Australian Virtuosi, a two-piano duo, and the percussion ensemble Synergy Percussion. Between them these musicians fulfil the huge demands of this arrangement with outstanding artistic flair and brilliance.

Working with this particular combination of exceptional Australian talent must have been a
conductor’s dream for Antony Walker; his interpretation of the work and his control of the forces have produced what is probably one of the best ABC recorded performances of 2002.

GREAT PIANISTS Vladimir Horowitz (piano)

Scarlatti, Haydn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Rimsky Korsakov, Debussy, Stravinsky, Poulenc

NAXOS 8.110606
TPT 1:17:31

 reviewed by Neville Cohn

In this centenary year of pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s birth in 1903, a flood of re-issues of recordings he made over a long career brings to a new generation of listeners the idiosyncratic virtuosity of a musician whose artistry captured the imagination of millions. This is yet another fascinating compilation in Naxos’ admirable CD series devoted to resurrected recordings made by great pianists mainly during the first half of the 20th century.

For sheer digital brilliance and phenomenal left-hand power and authority, Horowitz was virtually without peer, as is abundantly evident in these performances recorded between 1932 and 1934 when at the peak of his formidable form.

Some may take issue with his over-romanticised treatment of two Scarlatti sonatas. But few, surely, would fail to thrill to his near-incredible finger facility, especially in relation to his trademark, machinegun-rapid repeated notes and wondrous glowing tone in the Sonata in G, L487. And in Haydn’s Sonata in E flat major, Hob XVI/52, the sort of music that could at times suffer from overly flamboyant treatment at the hands of the Russian-born virtuoso, is here enchanting. The outer movements bristle with vitality but very much in context in stylistic terms ­ there is no lapse into vulgarity here; it is the
essence of good taste, musicmaking that, even in repose, fully engages the attention, as does his account of Schumann’s Arabesque, masterly in its simplicity of presentation, and capable, surely, of melting the iciest heart.

Nowadays, keyboard athletes in Olympian form are ten a penny, all of them endeavouring to emulate the great Vladimir. But, digitally agile though they may be, there is little to distinguish one from the next. Frequently, there is a conveyor-belt- sameness about their presentations that make it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish one from another. Not so this extraordinary pianistic wizard. In the athletic stakes, he could hold his own against any comers but his instantly recognisable keyboard style marks his offerings instantly and memorably. Is there a pianist alive who could so effectively mine Chopin’s Etude in C sharp minor from opus 10 for its savage grandeur as does Horowitz? Or bring to Danse Russe from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka such sizzling energy and accuracy at top speed?

Horowitz is not often thought of in relation to the music of Debussy or Poulenc. But when he turned his attentions to these French masters, the results could be extraordinary. Listen to the exceptional clarity and control of arpeggionated figures – and subtle pianissimo shadings – in Debussy’s ferociously tricky Etude XI. Listen to Poulenc’s Pastourelle as it caresses the ear ­ as well as Poulenc’s Toccata. In Horowitz’s hands, it flashes into fantastically energetic and nimble life, as does Rachmaninov’s arrangement of Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee.

Oceans of ink have been spilled extolling the merits of Horowitz’s 1932 recording of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. Here, words seem superfluous in this landmark performance in which music so eloquently picks up the thread that language drops.

TANGO SONG and DANCE Brahms, Franck, Faure, Kreisler, Gershwin, Previn

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)
Andre Previn (piano) Lambert Orkis (piano)

DG 471 500-2
TPT 1:16:13

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

I found my review copy of this CD in my letter box when I returned home late at night after a long and tiring day. I thought I’d listen to it for a few minutes before turning in. Suffice it to say that it was around 3 am before I called it a night after listening to this enchanting recording three times in succession. This is one of the finest CDs I’ve listened to this year, playing by three musicians who seem to draw from a shared reservoir of inspiration. I cannot readily recall more satisfying playing from Anne Sophie Mutter (violin) and Andre Previn (piano). In the latter’s Tango Song and Dance, they scale Olympus with a nonchalance of mastery that is breathtaking.

Sensuous of mood and sumptuous of tone, there’s a ‘come hither’ quality about both score and interpretation that’s as irresistible as a siren’s call. Song, in particular, makes for wonderfully satisfying listening, ardent music, ardent playing that insinuate themselves in the deepest recesses of the consciousness. There’s wizardry in the meticulous skill with which Mutter addresses fluttering arabesques here. And, in Dance, there’s bracing assertiveness and astonishingly nimble treatment of the violin line, with note streams informed by a most pleasingly grainy tone quality. Previn does wonders, too, at the keyboard, the playing informed by a whispered, phantom boogie-woogie quality. Throughout, the unanimity of attack they bring to even the most subtle of nuances is extraordinary. If Previn’s Tango Song and Dance does not find a place in the standard repertoire, I would very much like to know why.

The word ‘superb’, with its connotations of exalted excellence, is, in the nature of things, rarely employed by critics. But in a medley of songs from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (in a transcription for violin and piano by Jascha Heifetz), it seems barely adequate to describe the all-embracing finesse of their ensemble playing. Here, Mutter and Previn scale Olympus.

Mutter is hardly less persuasive in ensemble with pianist Lambert Orkis in a bracket of Hungarian Dance by Brahms and a Kreisler group ­ Schon Rosmarin, Caprice viennois No 2 and Liebesleid.

Schon Rosmarin is given memorable treatment; Mutter’s double stopping is here magical – and she mines the Caprice for every last ounce of Viennese nuance.

Franck’s Sonata No 1 in A is one of his most deeply probing scores and Mutter and Orkis respond to it with an answering depth of feeling. At its most extrovert, there is a soaring, passionate quality to the playing that makes this 25 minutes of listening bliss.

The sound engineers have done a first rate job. Highly recommended.

Mahler – Symphony No 4 (chamber version)

and Song of a Wayfarer (chamber version)

Clare Gormley (soprano)
Jeffrey Black (baritone)
Sydney Soloists conducted by John Harding

ABC Classics 461 827-2
TPT 1: 09: 36

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

Here’s something for those interested in music off the beaten track ­ or, more precisely, music well established in the repertoire but here available in rarely encountered guises.

Mahler’s Symphony No 4 is played in Erwin Stein’s 1921 version for chamber ensemble. On the face of it, reducing Mahler’s large-scale orchestral requirements to a mere handful of musicians would seem a recipe for disaster. I’m happy to report that not only does it work but it works very well. In fact, so skilful and persuasive is the reduction that , after only moments into the work to allow the ear to adjust, it becomes clear that Mahler’s musical ideas are so resilient that ­ like so much of the music of Bach ­ they retain their power to hold the attention even if expressed through a medium different to that envisaged by the composer. Certainly, it’s an arrangement that falls pleasingly on the ear; there is nothing here that jars apart from an episode some 16 minutes into the third movement which descends into cheapness.

It is, however, not only the cleverness of the arrangement that impresses but also the marked skill on the part of the thirteen instrumentalists who play in a consistently meaningful way.

A great deal of the success of this recorded performance derives from the uncommon musicality and musicianship that a small ensemble brings to the work, notably in the second movement where Francesco Celata (clarinet), Diana Doherty (oboe) and violins draw from a deep well of expressiveness.

Soprano Clare Gormley, whether by design or consciously, brings to her important contribution to the 4th movement, a tentative, tremulous quality that sounded entirely appropriate for evoking the innocent wonder of a child describing the delights of a gingerbread vision of paradise. Certainly, Ms Gormley’s contribution was altogether in keeping with Mahler’s requirement that the soprano sing in a “childishly joyous way but without even a hint of parody”,

But the chief joy of this recording is Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) with a consistently on-form Jeffrey Black mining the words for every subtle emotional nuance, especially in Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my darling has her wedding day). Here, Black’s singing is pregnant with meaning; it comes across as the apotheosis of sadness.
And the darkly dramatic, suicide-threatening mood of Ich hab’ ein gluhend Messer (I have a Red Hot Knife) is wonderfully expressed as is the profound melancholy that informs the concluding song.

I particularly admired the skill that none other than Arnold Schoenberg brought to his 1920 arrangement of the work. There is consistently exquisite playing by the accompanying instrumental ensemble.