Monthly Archives: April 2005

Schubert: The Cycles Wolfgang Holzmair(baritone)

Schubert: The Cycles
Wolfgang Holzmair(baritone)
Imogen Cooper (piano)

Die schone Mullerin; Winterreise; Schwanengesang; 7 lieder

Philips 476-200-2 (3-CD pack)
TPT: 3:34:59

reviewed by Neville Cohn



There are so many fine recordings of Schubert’s great song cycles extant, many of them of exceptional standard, that one might question whether there’s a need of another – in this case a re-issue. What, if anything, does this re-release offer the listener that is not adequately, indeed, in some cases, superbly, explored on other CDs available at the present time?

After the most careful listening – and a good many re-hearings – to the Holzmair/Cooper partnership, the answer is very definitely in the affirmative, especially in relation to the Mullerin and Winterreise works.

Now, let it be unequivocally said that many – most, for that matter – of the other versions currently available are as technically skilled and tonally attractive in relation to both voice and piano; some, such as the Fischer-Dieskau/Moore recordings have the unmistakable stamp of greatness.

But what places the Holzmair/Cooper version of the cycles in a category largely of its own is the quite exceptional care lavished on the schubert1narrative aspect of the works, a sense of an unfolding, many-chaptered tale being related to the listener by master story tellers. The plural is deliberate, the piano accompaniments as crucial to the overall effect as the vocal line.

This is no mean achievement. Holzmair and Cooper present the cycles in a way that compels complete attention from first note to last. There is nothing in the current catalogue of available recordings that offers this crucial dimension at so high a level and so consistently. Here, the cumulative effect of Holzmair and Cooper’s approach to the the narrative’s development, especially in Winterreise, makes for enthralling listening.

Again and again, one is drawn ineluctably into the unique sound and mood world of Schubert who focussed his genius so unremittingly on Wilhelm Muller’s rather humdrum words that, for the duration of the performance, they sound significantly more profound and probing than they really are. This is rather like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in which Victor Hartman’s quite ordinary drawings and paintings are given an immortality by the music that they would never have achieved on their own.

Certainly, in Winterreise, Holzmair and Cooper evoke, with uncanny skill, the bitterness of broken dreams that lies at the heart of the cycle, in which gloom and depression are all-pervading and where the effect of the forsaken protagonist’s corrosive loneliness transforms mere sadness into a despair beyond despair. And when, towards the close of the work, the hapless lover experiences mental disintegration – where, hallucinating, he looks up at the sky and sees, not one sun, but three – Holzmair and Cooper’s lieder partnership achieves greatness.

And in Die Schone Mullerin, the shifting moods of the cycle from blithe to suicidal are impressively evoked. Here is an account that is no less persuasive as an unfolding story, a performance brimming with meaning.

Here are innumerable felicitous touches. Listen, for instance, to Wohin?: how perfectly controlled the piano triplets are – and Holzmair’s lightness of tone here sounds entirely right. And there is about the presentation of Ungeduld a quality of palpitating breathlessness that is a perfect assessment of the impatience that is the title of this lied. And the so-elusive piano accompaniment to Der Lindenbaum is splendidly controlled and lyrical.

A minor reservation is an occasional inclination to overaccentuate this or that syllable in the vocal line.

Schwanengesang is given first rate treatment. I particularly admired the youthful, keen ardour brought to Standchen as well as the remarkable clarity of Cooper’s playing, so very difficult to achieve in Aufenthalt where, more often than not, the piano part can sound thick-textured and blurred. Here, fittingly, the vocal line comes across like a cry of pain. Listen, too, for that sinister sense of foreboding which Holzmair and Cooper conjure up in Herbst.

Liebesbotschaft, one of Schubert’s most poignant utterances, is most competently essayed although one felt a need for a rather more emphatic left hand to underscore Schubert’s glorious, shifting modulations in the piano part.

In addition to Schwanengesang, there are an additional seven lieder, each presented like a finely facetted gem.

These are performances that warrant pride of place in any collection of lieder recordings.

Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn

Oboe Concerto (Ross Edwards)

oboeOboe Concerto (Ross Edwards); Yanada; Ulpina

Diana Doherty (oboe)
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

ABC Classics 476 7173
TPT: 00:23:18



reviewed by Neville Cohn


This represents a splendid confluence of talents – of top Australian composer Ross Edwards, ace oboist Diana Doherty and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arvo Volmer.

Ross Edwards’ highly idiosyncratic, instantly recognisable compositional style is employed to engaging effect in his recent Oboe Concerto, recently given its USA premiere in New York.

In this recording, made in June 2004 in Robert Blackwood Hall at Monash University, Doherty is in her usual impeccable form. She sounds utterly authoritative here from the opening measures which take in a series of unaccompanied flourishes. The seemingly effortless command of the instrument, expressed in a stream of finely pitched, pure and luminous sound, engages the attention instantly. An often elaborate solo line is complemented by dainty orchestral seasonings.

Edwards’ concerto is in a single movement and its 18-minute-long duration seems all too short. Whether slow and pensive, teasing or puckish, the concerto is a rich repository of some of Edwards’ most diverting, invariably accessible ideas, delights and fascinates the ear as the work oscillates between exotic, faux-Arabian measures and hauntingly elfin episodes – and syncopated rhythms on wood blocks and a wildly abandoned dance-type finale adding another dimension of listening pleasure. I would be surprised if the work fails to find a place in the standard repertoire.

Yanada is another delight, a four-minute unaccompanied excursion into a quietly reflective world, given deeply expressive treatment by Doherty. Ulpirra is utterly different mood-wise with its darting, perky, mischievous

Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn

Una Voce Poco Fa opera

unavoceUna Voce Poco Fa
opera paraphrases for 4 saxophones and piano


Alliage Quartet and Jang Eun Bae (piano)
Rhapsody on Bizet’s Carmen (Jun Nagao); Overture to Barber of Seville (Rossini); Fantasy after Tosca (Puccini/Hilner); Suite on Porgy and Bess (Gershwin/Dedenon); Seductive Realm after Magic Flute(Mozart/Imai)

TPT: 01:05:49
MDG 603 1272-2

reviewed by Neville Cohn



Before listening to this CD, I had some reservations based on too many encounters with indifferent offerings by brass and/or woodwind ensembles playing bad arrangements of music written for other media. But only moments into this recording, it is abundantly apparent that the four saxophonists featured here are masters of their instruments. Moreover, the arrangements offered here, with a single exception, are in the best sense tasteful, constantly respectful of the style of the composers concerned. As well, Korean pianist Jang Eun Bae, who also features in some of the transcriptions, is invariably on a par with the German saxophonists.


Andreas Hilner’s clever (in the positive sense) reworking of extracts from Puccini’s Tosca gets dream treatment from the quartet; Scarpia’s theme comes across as the quintessence of malevolence. It makes for compelling listening.

Sylvain Dedenon’s suite after themes from Porgy and Bess is first rate, too, and beautifully presented, the quartet, made up of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, sounding as if positively relishing coming to grips with the bustling measures of Jasbo Brown. The yearning, haunting essence of Summertime is beautifully evoked as is the groovy essence of It ain’t necessarily so.

Sebastian Pottmeier (who plays baritone saxophone in the ensemble) has done wonders in his arrangement of the overture to Rossini’s Barber of Seville to which the group responds in the most agreeably stylish way. Much the same could be said of Jun Nagao’s Rhapsody on Bizet’s Carmen. Here, the quartet is joined by pianist Jang Eun Bae in an impeccable offering.

The magic is absent only in a reworking of themes from Mozart’s Magic Flute, the music of which doesn’t translate well to this medium notwithstanding the quality of the playing. But this is the only disappointment in a compilation that otherwise provides almost unalloyed listening pleasure.

Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn

Tango Jam Volume 1 Astor Piazzolla

James Crabb (accordion) and friends`

reviewed by Neville Cohn


“My bandoneon has become more to me than an instrument; it is like my psycho-analyst. I start to play and I blurt everything out”. How grateful posterity should be to Argentinian tango-master Astor Piazzolla for expressing his often troubled thoughts, not to a psychiatrist but in concrete musical terms through the medium of his square-built button accordion and accompanying instruments.

Here’s a recording that will be of particular interest to those who heard ace British accordionist James Crabb and friends during a recent concert tour of Australia by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. For those coming to this all-Piazzolla compilation for the first time, it might well be a revelatory experience.

Crabb, who is professor of classical accordion at the Royal Danish Academy, has had the rare experience of working with members of Piazzolla’s own quintet and this adds a further dimension of authenticity to his playing. Here, he is in ensemble with Richard Tognetti (violin), George Vassilev (electric guitar), Maxime Bibeau (double bass) and Benjamin Martin (piano).

As a team, these musicians cast fresh light on familiar notes. Libertango, expressed in glittering, diamond-bright tone, has about it a pulsing, steamy quality that seizes the attention. Tognetti’s violin has a sweet-toned, come- hither quality in Milonga del Angel; its slow, haunting, laid-back unfolding is a fine foil for the striding piano motif that ushers in Concierto para Quinteto. Its whooping violin conjures up images of couples sweeping across the dance floor. Mumuki, too, with the quintet’s beautiful lift to the phrase, is a gem with its leisurely guitar theme and melancholy mood. There’s much else on offer, all of it at an impressively high level. Recorded sound is uniformly excellent.

When it came to expressing the darker emotions in tango terms, few could equal Piazzolla. Yearning, loss, leave- taking, disappointment, nostalgia, even grief are the very essence of much of Piazzolla’s output. And the quintet which give us Tango Jam is well to the forefront of ensembles which endeavour to bring Piazzolla’s tango-time musings across to audiences whose appetite for the Argentinian master’s musical offerings seems far from satiation.

Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn

Great Violinists – Menuhin

Sonatas for violin and piano opus 30 no 2 in C minor
& opus 47 in A (Kreutzer);Rondo in G WoO 41 (Beethoven)
Rondo in B minor opus 70 (Schubert)

Yehudi Menuhin (violin) Hephzibah Menuhin (piano)

TPT: 01:18:14
Naxos 8.110775

reviewed by Neville Cohn



This is a disc worth having if only for the pleasure of listening – and re-listening – to the Menuhin siblings revelling in their musicmaking in Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor from opus 12.

The first movement has an urgency, a youthful drive that carries the listener along with it in a performance that leaps from the speakers. Here Hephzibah Menuhin is wondrously nimble and fluent at the piano. The pair are hardly less communicative in the slow movement, the violin line like some sublime ribbon of velvety, warm tone. This is musicianship which should be compulsory listening for anyone who has listened to recorded performances by Yehudi Menuhin made during his long decline. Forget those sad performances. Rejoice instead as you experience the marvel that was Menuhin when at his peak.

The siblings are in glorious form in the scherzo, piercing to the heart of this engaging instance of Beethoven at his most puckishly lighthearted. The concluding allegro is beyond reproach. Some surface hiss and crackle remind us of the age of the recording

This wondrous interpretation was captured for posterity by HMV at EMI’s studios in London in March 1938.

Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata is given a very much less persuasive reading. Recorded a year earlier – in 1934 – it is a classic instance of how uneven Menuhin could be as a musician. At times, which became fewer and fewer over the years, there was a god-like perfection about his playing, which enabled him to produce performances of ineffable beauty. Not so here.

Although there are episodes, tantalisingly few, that reveal Menuhin in good form, there is too much about the presentation that is ponderous and effortful, an impression augmented by some wowing in the introduction to the work. It’s not clear whether this relates to the original recording.

The day before the Menuhins recorded the C minor sonata, they went to the EMI studios in London to make a pressing of Beethoven’s little Rondo in G. It’s a gem, its carefree, high-spirited essence captured to the nth degree.

Again, to underscore how erratic Menuhin could be even in his heyday, listen to the Schubert Rondo, recorded a few weeks later.

Here, the siblings sound inspired; the introduction is frankly magnificent. There’s a good deal of portamento in the style of the time in a reading that is alternately imperious and lyrical. At more robust moments, there’s rivetting rhythmic cut and thrust in this exultant performance.

© 2005 Neville Cohn