Thursday 15 December 2016

CD Reviews - December 2016

The Australian Chamber Orchestra are renowned for their lively and exciting live performances, and under their director and lead violinist, Richard Tognetti, they have released a live recording of performances of Mozart’s final three Symphonies, Nos. 39-41, given in Sydney in 2015.  As with all good live recordings, this retains a real sense of energy, and leave you wishing you’d been there.  Tognetti takes the fast movements at a great lick, particularly the finale of No. 39, which has such spark, yet without compromising precision and detail.  Quick tempi in Mozart can sometimes feel too frenetic and breathless, but there is always just enough sense of control here.  The darker moods are also given great presence, particularly in the slow movement of No. 40.  And the still shocking harmonic gear changes in the finale are given enough drama without being overly aggressive.  No. 41’s slow movement is treated with sensitive care and attention, and the finale’s dazzling combination of no fewer than five themes is suitably jubilant. These are impressive Mozart recordings by any account, but with the added spice of their live energy, this makes them worthy of high praise indeed.

I’ve received two recordings this month featuring Irish pianist Michael McHale.  First of these is in fact a showcase album for fellow Irishman, the percussionist Alex Petcu.  This is a real calling-card selection, with a great variety of styles, as well as a range of percussion instruments.  McHale joins him for Piazonore by Alexej Gerassimez, a short piece for vibraphone and piano, loosely based on Piazzolla’s Libertango theme.  This has great drive, and Gerassimez (another percussionist) blends the piano and vibraphone well.  The Arabesque No. 1 by Debussy also receives a sensitive vibraphone treatment, and then the instrument becomes ethereal and haunting when bowed in Elliot Cole’s Postlude No. 8.  There’s plenty for the marimba too, including some tasteful Bach, and the delightful ‘A Little Prayer’ by the great Evelyn Glennie, here exploiting the instrument’s resonance to create a remarkably sustained sound.  Petcu also performs Steve Reich’s challenging marimba duet, Nagoya Marimbas (with himself!), at a mesmerizing speed.  He is joined by violinist Ioana Petcu-Colan in two pieces, both with folk influences. ‘Yerkinkn Ampel A’ is an arrangement of an Armenian folk song, and the Fugue from Prelude and Fugue by Sam Perkin has Andean influences.  Once again, Petcu blends well with his partner, and Petcu-Colan’s sweet tone complements the marimba timbre effectively. A range of drums and other pitched and non-pitched instruments also feature on the disc, which makes for a highly engaging and interesting programme.

The second disc has Michael McHale centre stage, performing two Irish Piano Concertos, with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Courtney Lewis.  Firstly, he performs the Piano Concerto No. 3 by John Field (1782-1837), the Dublin-born pianist composer who is credited with the ‘invention’ of the Nocturne as a genre piece. The concerto has just two movements, but apparently Field would often insert one of his nocturnes in as a middle movement in performance, and here, McHale himself has arranged the Nocturne No. 2 for piano and orchestra, and it does act as a convincing central movement alongside the Concerto. McHale gives a strong performance, showing particular sensitivity in the fantasia-like section of the opening movement, and relishes the virtuosic display of the final movement.  For the other concerto here, we jump forward to the present day, with Philip Hammond’s (b.1951) Piano Concerto, written for McHale, and premiered by him just last year.  Hammond describes his style here as ‘retro-romanticism’, clearly drawing on the Romantic tradition of the virtuoso concerto.  It is a striking yet accessible work, with a particularly haunting slow middle movement, with relentless rising scales creating intensity and tension, which then explodes into the rapid driving finale. McHale’s energetic virtuosity is ably supported by great precision from the orchestra and Lewis.

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) is a greatly underestimated French composer, and it is a real surprise that his music, which is often lively and full of humour, is not more often heard in the concert hall.  He didn’t restrict himself to any particular prevailing style, and the variety of his output can be seen in this disc of his orchestral works from the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, conducted by Neeme Järvi.  The rich impressionism of the opening movement of Escales… (‘Rome-Palerme’) stands in great contrast to his eastern influenced use of a solo oboe in ‘Tunis-Nefta’, and again to the Spanish heat of ‘Valence’.  Ibert’s Divertissement is perhaps his best-known work, with its wit and circus-like brass vulgarity and crazy police whistles.  Järvi and the orchestra have fun here, but take a slightly ironic approach, rather than fully letting go to its excesses.  Other gems here include another atmospheric oboe solo in Féerique, alongside the full-on Hollywood-esque celebration of Ouverture de fête.  The Suite symphonique ‘Paris’ is another compilation of incidental music, with Ibert deftly shifting action from the original South American location of a play by Romain, to the busy metropolis of Paris, and Järvi and the OSR bring out all the detail in Ibert’s lush and imaginative orchestration.  If you don’t know his music, then Ibert is definitely worth exploring – and this is the perfect place to start.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, December 2016)

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