Monthly Archives: April 2006

RUSSIAN BALLET SUITES

RUSSIAN BALLET SUITES 

 

Tchaikowsky:

The Sleeping Beauty;

The Nutcracker

Stravinsky:

Three Movements from

Petrushka

 


Alexei Volodin (piano)

TPT: 01:04:44

ABC Classics 476 160-1

 

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

 

Until recently, transcriptions for solo piano of ballet scores tended to be looked down upon by the cognoscenti, certainly by most pianists who describe themselves as ‘serious’. True, Stravinsky’s reworking for piano of three excerpts from his Petrushka score was an exception to this musical snobbery. But, insofar as the great ballet scores of, say, Tchaikowsky are concerned, why, it would have been unthinkable to play piano versions of them in the concert hall -or so ran the conventional wisdom.

 volodin

But with the advent of Michael Pletnev, a pianist in the grandest of grand virtuoso traditions – and his stunning reworkings of these much loved orchestral scores for keyboard – piano transcriptions of ballet music have come up in the world.

 

No longer the sole preserve of numberless suburban dance studios, where it’s often thumped out on out-of-tune pianos played by elderly ladies wearing hats, this treasury of melody is now welcomed at that holiest of holy institutions, the solo piano recital. Deprecating sniffs have given way to cries of admiration.

Pletnev showed the way and now others, also endowed with blistering technical finesse, have come to the party.

One of the most impressive of these converts to the newly respectable world of ballet score transcriptions is young Russian pianist Alexei Volodin. He seems positively to relish coming to grips with the music; his involvement with the score is powerfully emotional and it sweeps all before it.

The recordings abound in memorable moments: astonishing, quicksilver fluency in the Singing Canary (from Sleeping Beauty), splendidly buoyant, athletic treatment of the finale. And how cleverly Volodin simulates the celeste-like pingings of The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

And in the Russian Dance from Petrushka, Volodin pulls out all the stops in an episode which famed Greek pianist Gina Bachauer once conceded was “terribly hard to play”.

The underlying hysteria of Petrushka’s Room comes through in Volodin’s marvellously detailed treatment of the notes. And the swarming detail of Shrovetide Fair comes across in a tour de force, its floodtide of notes marshalled in a way that powerfully suggests a bustling crowd.

Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn

 

 

Wessel van Wyk (piano) Piano Favourites Volume 3

wesselWessel van Wyk (piano)
Piano Favourites Volume 3

Reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

 

JNSD126 TPT: 65:57

 

It takes a very courageous pianist to embark on a recording project featuring some of the repertoire’s most loved and frequently heard works. Consider Liszt’s La Campanella. There are literally dozens of recordings of it available, many by some of the greatest pianists. How, I wondered, would van Wyk’s recording stand up to close aural scrutiny?

I’m happy to report that it comes across with sincerity and seriousness of purpose, its filigree traceries unfailingly clearly defined.

Scarlatti’s ubiquitous Sonata in C, K159 sounds newly minted with its bright-toned fanfares (although piano tone in the high treble register verges on the tinny) and Albeniz’s very tricky Asturias (also know as Leyenda) is beautifully essayed, its floodtide of semiquavers expertly and musically marshalled. It is a highpoint of this collection.

Van Wyk’s nimble fingers are no less accurate in Mendelssohn’s Bee’s Wedding in an agreeably buoyant, rhythmically controlled presentation.

Some of the offerings border on the prosaic such as an arrangement of Kreisler’s Schon Rosmarin which is curiously lacking in Viennese lilt; the same might be said of Kreisler’s Liebesleid in the Rachmaninov arrangement.

But two Chopin offerings more than make up for this. The poignancy of the Nocturne in C sharp minor, opus posthumous, is well evoked – and an account of the Heroic Polonaise is informed by an altogether appropriate hauteur.

There’s a pleasing bucolic touch to Grieg’s Norwegian Dance from opus 35; it engages the attention in a most satisfying way although recorded sound is rather too bass-heavy.

Other items in this charm-laden compilation include Liszt’s Un Sospiro, an admirably tranquil reading of Myra Hess’ famous arrangement of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, Mendelssohn’s On Wings of Song and Albeniz’s famous Tango in D in arrangements respectively by Liszt and Godowsky.

This CD is obtainable for $AU27 (including postage and packaging) from JNS Music, P.O.Box 11387, Brooklyn 0011, South Africa or visit info@jns.co.za

Copyright Neville Cohn 2006


Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky)

Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky)
Scott Davie (piano)

 

Piano Sonata No 1; Fragments;

Oriental Sketch; Piano Piece in D

minor; Piano Piece in A flat

(Rachmaninov)

ABC Classics 476 3166

TPT:74’52”davie1

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

 

Scott Davie provides one of the most satisfying recordings of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition currently available on compact disc. His musicality runs like a silken thread through the performance.

Recorded sound is exceptionally fine – it is in the best sense “real” – allowing the listener to savour Davies’ interpretative probings to the full. There’s not a dull moment in a performance brimming with insights that make even the meanest succession of notes eminently listenable.

The Promenade episodes that dot the score are a case in point. In lesser hands, they can so easily sound routine, even humdrum. Not so here. In turn strident and gentle, they are like fine musical sorbets that provide the aural equivalent of clearing the palate between courses at a sumptuous feast.

If ever there was a work in which the first rate is inspired by the third rate, it is this. Had Mussorgsky not written this work – triggered by drawings and paintings of his friend Victor Hartmann – it is almost certain these quite ordinary efforts would long since have disappeared into history’s rubbish bin. But Mussorgsky’s wonderfully imaginative work – written in homage to his friend who ahd die aged a mere 39 years – ensures that his friend’s lacklustre drawings will be thought of as long as this keyboard masterpiece remains in the standard repertoire.

Consider Davies’ account of Bydlo. How masterfully he suggests – in the most unequivocal of terms – the ponderous, lumbering nature of a ox-drawn wooden cart. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks is another gem, its insouciance coming across with featherlight buoyancy. By contrast, Catacombs, with its overlay of a tolling, treble-register bell, has about it an all-encompassing mood of desolation, of sadness beyond sadness.

In the first movement of the Rachmaninov Sonata, Davies marshals its tsunami of notes with remarkable success, giving to this epic utterance a sense of structure that would elude most others game enough to play it. Certainly, the wildness that lies at the heart of much of the first movement is impressively conveyed. Davies, too, manages to make the meretricious note spinning that is the finale sounds far better than it really is.

In a bracket of miniatures, Davies does wonders with Fragments coming across as a hushed essay in wistfulness. And one could hardly imagine a more sympathetic interpreter of the Piano Piece in D minor, its mournful essence judged to a nicety.

Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn

 

 


When the Empire Calls

When the Empire Calls
Michael Halliwell (baritone)
David Miller (piano)

 

ABC Classics 476 8063

2-CD: TPT: 152’53”

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

empireAlthough the poetry of Rudyard Kipling is not nearly as popular nowadays as it was during his heyday, his Barrack-Room Ballads remain a superbly authentic evocation of British soldiery at the height of Britain’s Imperial power. Certainly, Kipling had no peer in his ability to capture the dialectical essence of Queen Victoria’s troopers. In fact, during an era when Brittania really ruled the waves and patriotism, with its unfortunate overtones of racial superiority, Kipling’s verse was a magnet for British composers.

Their settings of Kipling’s words enjoyed a considerable vogue; they were standard music hall fare especially during the very first years of the 20th century when the Boer War raged. And during an era when making music in British front parlours was a mainstay of middleclass life, settings of Kipling’s poems figured prominently in the repertoire.

Many of the sentiments enshrined in Kipling’s verse as well as the 25 tracks devoted to popular songs of the Boer War are now – to put it mildly – politically incorrect. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight, Britain’s notions of Empire strike one as repellent with their breathtakingly condescending attitudes to the indigenous people of the annexed territories which were usually taken without a shot being fired.

Michael Halliwell is just the person to breathe life into these songs. His diction is impeccable, his musicality beyond reproach. And the occasional moment when vocal control is less than entirely secure is more than made up for by the acuity of his interpretative probings.

Throughout, David Miller provides first rate support at the piano. In fact, as a team, Halliwell and Miller provide the last word in stylistic integrity.

Numbers of these songs have been rescued from near oblivion; others have retained a modest place in the repertoire.

Boots is a delight in this setting by J.P.McCall. Its extrovert, rather jolly, tramping beat comes across splendidly. Arguably the best known of the set is On the Road to Mandalay in the famous setting by Oley Speaks.

The liner notes make fascinating reading.

Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn


The Art of Peter Clinch

The Art of Peter Clinch

Peter Clinch (saxophones)

and friends

Music by William Lovelock,

Eric Gross,

Geoffrey D’Ombrain and

James Penberthy

Diversions 24120

TPT: 1:15:36

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

 

 

For those many concertgoers who heard Peter Clinch at his peak, this compilation will be a welcome reminder of his artistry – and it will enable a new generation of listeners to make the acquaintance of a first rate musician. William Lovelock, whose years as founding director of the Queensland Conservatorium are remembered for his unwaveringly conservative approach to music and a gift for looking backwards in both harmonic and stylistic terms, may not have won him many allies. But his not inconsiderable output has provided saxophonists – as well as tuba players – with a small repertoire of works that have immediacy and tunefulness in abundance.

Clinch is at his beguiling best in Lovelock’s Sonata for saxophone and piano, the opening adagio coming across like a gently unfolding, intensely felt, song. And the central movement is a wild ride that seizes the attention. Trevor Barnard is the perfect piano partner although recorded sound is rather tinny.clin

There’s more Lovelock in the form of his Three Sketches with Nehama Patkin at the piano. The Prelude is a lavish obeisance to Schumann, the Valsette a charming, salon-type vignette and the Scherzo a fine vehicle for Clinch to demonstrate his extraordinary control of the instrument; this is splendidly lively playing with some beautifully gauged rubati. Throughout the work, Clinch’s consistently fine tone flies in the face of Wagner’s sour dismissal of the instrument which, he once said, ‘sounds like the word Reckankreuzungsklankewerkzeuge’!

In Introspections for Saxophone and Prepared Tape – a joint effort by Geoffrey D’Ombrain and Clinch – twitterings and electronically generated otherworldly glissandi call to mind background music for movies about intergalactic strife. Listen to Clinch’s flawlessly phrased line to a pre-recorded tape. Here, as in everything he played, Clinch brings the Midas touch, turning even this rather dated offering to musical gold.

There’s more sax magic from Clinch in Eric Gross’ Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet. The central lento movement is pure delight, the saxophone line a stream of pure, unforced sound that blends exquisitely with the corporate tone of the Petra String Quartet.

This compact disc is a compendium of saxophone marvels and a remarkable testament to the artistry of one of the instrument’s most persuasive interpreters.

Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn