Monthly Archives: October 2009

Dame Nellie Melba

The First Recordings

TPT: 56’16”

476 3556 Melba

ABC Classics 476 3556

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Nellie Melba, for much of her career, was arguably the most famous Australian in the world. The aura of glamour about her sustained public interest to an astonishing degree for years.

A recently released CD features recordings Melba made at the height of her career, a marvellous insight into one of the greatest voices ever to be captured on gramophone records. Almost all the tracks here were made in 1904 at Melba’s luxurious and extravagantly furnished home in London’s Great Cumberland Place, near Marble Arch.

Let’s look at some of the economics of those sessions, drawn from Roger Neill’s fascinating liner notes.

For this series of recordings done over a number of days, Melba was paid one thousand British pounds, a staggering fee that equates now to around 80,000 pounds. Moreover, her contract required that her gramophone recordings would be sold at one guinea each ie 21 shillings or one pound, one shilling, this equating nowadays to about 80 pounds. I cannot readily think of anyone nowadays who would be prepared to pay such a sum for a recording running for perhaps four or so minutes.

It was, and still is, a staggering indication of how much in demand Melba was in singing terms. As well, her contract stipulated that for each record sold, she was to receive a royalty of five shillings which, too, added up to a more than tidy sum. The public was insatiable.

In Sydney, not long after these recordings were made, a concert which consisted of people listening to Melba’s voice on a gramophone positioned on a small table was sold out fourteen times running! And for those interested in such matters, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra purchased a gramophone and many of the recordings on this CD, some of which they played for their guest at Buckingham palace:Archduke Franz Ferdinand  who would be assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, thus tipping the world into the Great War 1914 – 1918.

How we have come on since 1904. In those days, records were sold in ordinary brown paper packets, sometimes with advertising on them, unlike nowadays when there is almost information overkill in the liner note booklets that come with each CD.

But the real joy of this collection is, of course, the singing which gives one an opportunity to savour one of the world’s truly magical voices. Melba may have been unpleasant as a human being, an unabashed social climber and rough with those she considered her inferiors – but she had a voice the recordings of which will thrill listeners far into the future.

The Piano at the Carnival

Anthony Goldstone (piano)

Piano at the Carnival

TPT: 76’31”

Divine Art dda25075

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Anthony Goldstone is one of the most resourceful pianists currently before the public. He has done wonders over years resurrecting music which, for one reason or another, has fallen into disuse. Indeed, the only tracks here that could be thought of as main stream repertoire are those devoted to Schumann’s Carnival which, of course, is available in umpteen other versions on CD.

It’s the rarities that are the main fascination of this recording.

Sydney Smith’s Fantaisie brillante on Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, for instance, is claimed as a first ever on record apart from a piano roll made circa 1919. Some might tut tut at its often superficial writing which it would not be inaccurate to describe as frankly cheap salon material – but its sometimes schmaltzy measures are offered with such gusto and brilliance that its inherent shallowness is forgotten for the duration of the performance. And in a first ever recording of Paul Klengel’s arrangement of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, Goldstone seems positively to relish coming to grips with its many keyboard challenges. He emerges unscathed from this traversing of a treacherous musical landscape with ebullient, admirably buoyant, playing that marshals avalanches of notes with immense flair.

I liked particularly the skill that Goldstone brings to Chopin’s Souvenir de Paganini (The Carnival of Venice), its much loved theme presented in gorgeous filigree terms with fine tonal light and shade, the composer’s idiosyncratic harmonies contributing to most satisfying listening. But an account of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 9 (The Carnival of Pesth) tends to ramble in a reading where the soloist might to advantage have surrendered more fully to the Muse.

Khatchaturian’s Masquerade Suite is known to millions in its original incarnation for orchestra. Here, Goldstone gives us the premiere recording of Alexander Dolukhanian’s version of the suite for solo piano. Each of the five movements is finely considered with the concluding Galop a particular delight: the playing is informed by immense brio before a brief moment of reflection, then an all-stops-out conclusion at top speed at high decibel levels.

More Bizarre or baRock

Elizabeth Anderson (harpsichord) and friends

MOVE CD 3326

reviewed by Neville Cohn


For those who think of the harpsichord exclusively in terms of its repertoire dating back to the pre-piano era, Elizabeth Anderson’s latest compact disc may well prove startling. Certainly, it is one of the most delightfully entertaining recitals on the instrument I’ve heard in a long time.

Some years ago, film fans watching Margaret Rutherford, the first – and most redoubtable  –  incarnations of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, would have heard its quirky theme music played on a harpsichord which, at that time, was a most unexpected departure from the norm. It brought home the idiosyncratic timbre of the instrument to millions who might never have heard, or even thought about, the harpsichord.

Much of this collection is in this delightfully zany tradition.

Elizabeth Anderson has done much to familiarise listeners with the instrument in unexpected styles, such as Franzpeter Goebels’ Chocolate Boogie, its anarchic measures a clear indication of what is to follow. Anderson seems positively to relish coming to grips with Andrew Koll’s Fuguedelic, after which there is a brief return to what might call stylistic normality with a fine reading of the first of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. Then it’s back to the bizarre with Templeton’s Bach Goes to Town.

Bach’s arrangement for harpsichord of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D receives first rate treatment by Anderson in a performance which underscores the music’s many dramatic moments. Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Breakdown calls up images of a boozy hillbilly celebration.

Those who delight in Chopin’s magisterial Polonaises may well find Couperin’s and Telemann’s versions of the dance rather less athletic and intense than those of the Polish master.

Jill Lowe’s baRock is a fine vehicle for Anderson’s virtuosity, especially rapid repeated notes which are played with huge flair. Certainly, the inherent grandeur of the piece comes across splendidly.

One of the most celebrated of all harpsichordists – George Malcolm – wrote a cheeky, insouciant version of the hornpipe and Anderson gives bracing point and meaning to it. Martin Peerson’s Fall of the Leafe, however, can’t hold a candle to Giles Farnaby’s exquisite miniature of the same name.  Purcell’s Round O will be instantly recognised by many as the theme Benjamin Britten used for his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra tossed off with enviable ease. Ligeti’s Continuum is a little miracle of flawless fingerwork.

Throughout, Anderson’s artistry is complemented by co-musicians Rosie Westbrook, Tony Floyd, Ariel Valent and Ron Nagorka.

Just Classics 2 The Gold Collection

W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Sara Macliver (soprano)

Fiona Campbell (mezzo soprano)

Benjamin Northey (conductor)

476 3341 Just Classics Gold

ABC Classics 476 3341

TPT: 61’58”

reviewed by Neville Cohn

I can’t recall hearing a finer version of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man than on this compact disc. Bass drum and tam tam are used to thrilling effect; it’s a perfect overture to the compilation.

Much of the offering consists of much loved classics that are heard time and again on radio or in live performance – but there is not a hint here of familiarity breeding indifference. On the contrary, there is the most appealing freshness to the playing, even in so hackneyed a piece as the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And in Dvorak’s Furiant No 8, the WASO brass section is very much on its collective toes.

Many of those listening to Respighi’s Bergamasca will recognise it instantly as the theme music for Marian Arnold’s much loved, long running Listeners’ Requests on ABC Classic FM.

Fiona Campbell is in exceptional voice in Mahler’s Ging heut’ Morgen. Producing an immaculate stream of fine mellow vocal tone, Campbell makes magic of this much loved lied. And soprano Sara Macliver is no less persuasive in Song of the Pistachio Harvesters from Ravel’s Five Greek Songs, informed as it is by a most appropriate sense of languor.

Also on disc is Saint Saens’ faux-Oriental Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah; woodwinds are very much on their toes here as in Dance of  the Little Swans from Tchaikowsky’s Swan Lake.

Take a bow, WASO! Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is given first rate treatment with Benjamin Northey presiding over events to frankly thrilling effect as the score’s satanic revelry is suggested to the nth degree. And the striding motif from the Montagues and Capulets episode from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet fairly sizzles with intensity.

The West Australian Symphony orchestra does not frequently feature on ABC Classics label so this recording is particularly welcome. Certainly, recording engineers Karl Akers and Gavin Fernie have ensured the WASO is heard to very best advantage here; recorded sound is uniformly excellent.

Interview: Alexander Lewis

Review: Alexander Lewis (tenor)/David Wickham (piano)

by Neville Cohn

The notion of a parent teaching a child music is neither new nor unusual. Famed pianist Clara Wieck (who married composer Robert Schumann) was coached to greatness by her famously domineering father Friedrich. Far and away the most celebrated of these arrangements is that of Leopold Mozart guiding the musical development of his phenomenal genius child Wolfgang Amadeus.

Much more recently still was the famously fractious relationship between pianist Ruth Slenczynska (who gave all-Beethoven recitals in Paris aged nine years) and her frighteningly strict father Joseph who would strike the tips of little Ruth’s fingers with a metal ruler at lessons if he found fault with her keyboard technique.

Nearer to home, and infinitely less fraught, are Patricia Price, noted vocal teacher, and her singer son Alexander Lewis who recently returned from a tour of Phantom of the Opera in which he sang in over 300 performances as Raoul across Australia and as far away as Taipei in Taiwan.

Warmly acknowledging the teaching skill of his mother – she has been her son’s only teacher – Alexander said “working with Mum means everything to me. I think Mum sometimes finds it hard to be really tough on me because I am her son but she knows how to get the best out of me”. He says that without his mother’s guidance, he wouldn’t be the singer he is today.

Perth-based Alexander’s work ethic was formed in childhood when the family was based in Harpenden, England where his father Michael Lewis sang in opera in both the UK and Europe. At the venerable age of seven and a half years, little Alexander became a chorister at St Alban’s Cathedral. There, he was expected to front up for practice three days a week before and after school with a rehearsal from 6 to 9pm on Fridays, Saturday afternoon rehearsals followed by Evensong with two and sometimes three services on Sundays.

Initially, Alexander trained as a baritone but when his mother flew to New York to hear her son sing Rossini’s Largo al  factotum with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, she realised Alexander’s voice was metamorphosing into that of a tenor. With change of voice comes change of repertoire, a daunting prospect bearing in mind how much of the tenor repertoire there is to learn – and how much of the baritone material had to be jettisoned.  “I’m going to miss singing Largo al factotum and Billy Budd’s aria – but sadly they have to be left behind”.

Here, as in all things musical, Alexander turned for guidance to his mother who said that “of course, the relationship is very different to that with my other students because Alexander is my son.

“We are able to show our frustrations (that inevitably crop up during lessons) much more openly because of this and we don’t have to search for the right words when grappling for solutions to musical problems”, she said. “Al is always prepared to listen to me and trust my advice”.

Price adds that her son is invariably “hungry for improvement and is never complacent. His main purpose is to sing and always has been – and this makes my teaching much easier.
Alexander’s mother believes that the key to their successful master/student relationship is a mutual respect and a shared love of singing. “I think that I learn as much from Alexander as he does from me”.

In 2001, the then-18 year old Alexander became the youngest-ever finalist in the Australian Singing Competition. A semi-finalist in the Neue Stimmen (New Voices) Opera Competition in Germany in 2007 (as a baritone), Alexander will be back there for the finals in October – as a tenor – singing arias by Mozart, Gounod, Tchaikowsky and Verdi.

“There are various cash prizes for the finals”, he said. “But the really important thing is having exposure to the people on the adjudication panel and those, such as agents, who attend the contest. There is the potential for job offers”, said Alexander.

On Sunday 6 September at 4pm, Alexander Lewis with David Wickham at the piano will present a recital of American songs at Government House Ballroom. Some of it will be familiar to most local concertgoers but a deal of it will be refreshingly new in this neck of the woods, in particular Gene Scheer’s Voices from World War II as well as songs by Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein. Tickets at $35 ($25 concession) are available from WAAPA box office.

Monies raised by the recital will fund visits to WAAPA of leading singers and teachers to give master classes to students.


Alexander Lewis (tenor)/David Wickham (piano)

Government House Ballroom

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Alexander Lewis is that vocal rarity: a trained baritone whose vocal range has altered so significantly that he is now a tenor.

In a taxing program that effectively blurred the line that divides art songs and music theatre pieces, Alexander Lewis, who moves about the stage as if it were his natural milieu, gave abundant evidence of an ability to adapt, chameleon-like, to any of a range of styles.

Gene Scheer’s Voices of World War II was fertile fare for Lewis’ abundant gifts, in which consistently clear diction and an ability to home in unerringly on the mood appropriate for each song, combined to most pleasing effect. Whether singing of an invitation to tea in a house in wartime London, of a German U-boat captain or holy water in the hell that was Omaha Beach on D-Day, Lewis demonstrated a most convincing narrative gift. I particularly admired David Wickham’s skill at the piano in the turbulent, beautifully stated accompaniment to the song about the U-boat captain. In fact, Wickham’s prowess at the keyboard was like a golden thread through the recital, not least in a virtuosic, bright-toned introduction to the afternoon in Ricardo Lorenz’ Bachango.

In a recital glittering with fine moments, I very much admired the skill brought to bear  on Ned Rorem’s arrangement of Stephen Foster’s Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair. Wickham’s delicate backing for Lewis’ immaculately stated line made this one of the gems of the afternoon.

Even the ubiquitous Maria from Bernstein’s West Side Story sounded fresh and newly minted with its extrovert and ardent vocal line and buoyant accompaniment.

Wickham’s magical treatment of two of Gershwin’s Preludes extended to his accompaniment of songs by William Bolcom, making light of villainously tricky writing in Over the Piano and evoking, beautifully, the poignant quality of Waitin’.

In a bracket of folk songs, Lewis was entirely convincing in I Gave My Love a Cherry and Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair.

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