Tag Archives: Saint Saens

Alisa Weilerstein (cello): Staatskapelle Berlin: Daniel Barenboim


Cello Concertos: Sir Edward Elgar & Elliott Carter; Kol Nidrei (Bruch)

DECCA 478 2735: TPT: 62’23”


Behzod Abduraimov (piano)

Liszt; Saint Saens; Prokofiev

DECCA 478 3301: TPT: 72’45”



Julia Lezhneva (soprano)

Il Giardino Armonico: Giovanni Antonini

Vivaldi; Handel; Porpora;Mozart

DECCA 478 5242: TPT: 60’48”


reviewed by Neville Cohn


Unlike, say, Mozart, Schubert and Chopin who died tragically young, Verdi was firing on all pistons into his eighties when he wrote Falstaff  – and Sibelius muddled drunkenly on into his nineties without having written anything of substance for years. But very few composers indeed have kept going well over the century mark as well as composing at a significant level. The remarkable Elliott Carter is a case in point. The US musician remained creative almost until his recent death at the age of 103. In, fact, between his 90th and 100th birthdays, he maintained a creative pace that many a composer decades younger would have had difficulty emulating, let alone exceeding.


In passing: imagine what Mozart might have produced if he’d lived another month – another week, for that matter: another symphony, perhaps, or a piano concerto. The same might be said of Schubert and Chopin. The tragic brevity of their lives on earth constitutes a massive loss to the world.


The long-lived Carter wrote his Cello Concerto when in his nineties. It’s played here by Alisa Weilerstein with the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

PACKSHOT Alisa Weilerstein - ELGAR & CARTER Cello Concertos

Like so much that Carter wrote, his concerto positively brims with intriguing ideas. There’s not a dull moment in his ever-changing sonic landscape and Weilerstein and Barenboim do it proud, seeming positively to relish coming to grips with its abundance of resourceful and engaging detail. It positively brims with novelty; it really warrants a good few listenings to respond to its multitude of musical thoughts.


I dare say that for many, the chief attraction of this recording would be Elgar’s Cello Concerto. That it is conducted by Barenboim adds a poignant dimension to the performance as the famous recording of the work with his cellist wife Jacqueline du Pre has assumed almost mythical status in the wake of the latter’s tragically lingering illness – MS – and death at far too young an age.


Weilerstein is a worthy soloist. The cello’s opening statement throbs with passion, the solo line gripping the attention from first note to last as the work’s evolving emotional landscape draws the listener ineluctably into Elgar’s unique and unforgettable sound and mood world. Throughout, Barenboim secures splendid responses from the Berlin Staatskapelle which provides a first rate accompaniment for the cello line.  There’s much that gives pleasure, too, in Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, his fantasia on the melody traditionally sung on the eve of the Jewish Day of Atonement. It’s a faultless offering at every level, its more introverted moments coming across with aching poignancy.


Another young musician reaching out for – and touching – the stars is Behzod Abraimov in a debut recording that ought to win him many admirers. He is sometimes compared to the legendary Horowitz – and his account of Saint Saens’ Danse Macabre is presented with the sizzling virtuosity and the sort of stylistic flair and diamond-bright tone that were so significant a factor in Horowitz’s playing. Here, Abraimov draws the listener effortlessly into the music’s eerie, phantasmagoric world .Cvr-0289478330

There’s much that gives pleasure, too, in Prokofiev’s massive Sonata No 6 with its bracing attack and follow-through and unerring sense of the composer’s idiosyncratic style. It has a confidence and brio that augur well for a stellar career.


A reading of Liszt’s Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude is less uniformly persuasive with the pianist taking up an interpretative position some little distance from the emotional epicentre of the music. The music’s mood of serene introspection was not always persuasively evoked. But there is compensation aplenty in Abduraimov’s reading of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No 1 which comes across with blazing intensity that calls to mind the astonishing virtuosity which can be heard in Julius Katchen’s celebrated DECCA  LP recording from the early 1960s. Abduraimov’s staying power is impressive with much of the playing the epitome of  intensity and drive.


A debut  DECCA recording by soprano Julia Lezhneva falls into that rare category in which the singing seems not so much a learned, studied skill but rather an act of such naturalness, such spontaneity, apparently free of the slightest strain, so entirely in tune (no pun intended) with the genre, so altogether satisfying as to be beyond criticism in the conventional sense. Of course, for playing to leave an impression of such freedom and freshness can, paradoxically, only be the fruit of the most concentrated self-discipline. This is music making at the most august level. Bravissimo!Cvr-0289478524

Fremantle Chamber Orchestra



Jessica Gethin (conductor)

Rudolf Koelman (violin)

reviewed by Neville Cohn

photo by Roel Loopers

Rudolf Koelman    Jessica Gethin

Rudolf Koelman Jessica Gethin

Saint Saens: Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso 09:04

Saint Saens: Havanaise                   08:40

Wieniawski: Violin Concerto No 2 in D minor, opus 22

Allegro moderato                            10:51

Romance: andante non troppo        04:26

Allegro con fuoco                           00:33

Allegro moderato (a la Zingara)     05:15


Rudolf Koelman, for many years concertmaster of Holland’s famed Concertgebaauw Orchestra, makes frequent visits to Australia. On a number of these occasions, he has fronted up as soloist with the Fremantle Chamber Orchestra. Some of this happy collaboration is now preserved on CD, recently released by the FCO.


Koelman, a formidable soloist, is featured in Saint Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso as well as Havanaise in addition to Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No 2.


Unsurprisingly, Koelman sounded in his element here, adapting to the requirements of each work like fine wine to a goblet. Stylistically impeccable, tonally refulgent, he seems incapable of an ugly sound.


There is a good deal of virtuosity on the part of the soloist but it is never there purely for its own sake. Invariably, it is entirely in context. In this sense, the presentation is in the very best of musical taste and all the more to be recommended for that.


There is clearly an excellent rapport between orchestra and soloist with Jessica Gethin doing sterling work in maintaining momentum and ensuring an equitable tonal balance between soloist and orchestra – and recording engineer Thomas Wearne has come up with the most sound (no pun intended!) result. It’s a recording well worth getting excited about – and for all the right reasons. And there is an extra frisson to the performance, doubtless due to the recording being of live performances before an audience in Fremantle.






BEN JACKS (horn soloist)

BARRY TUCKWELL (conductor)

The Queensland Orchestra; Orchestra Victoria


Damase: Concerto pour cor et orchestre (1995)

1. Moderato (6.08)

2. Allegro scherzando (2.23)

3. Andante (4.07)

4. Allegro vivace (3.36)

Koechlin: Poeme pour cor et orchestre (1927)

5. Moderato, tres simplement et avec souplesse   (5.44)

6. Andante, tres tranquille, presque adagio (4.02)

7. Final, assez anime cependant (4.38)

8. Damase: Rhapsodie pour cor et orchestra* (1987) (14.40)

9. Dukas/Terracini: Villanelle** (1906) (6.19)

10. Saint-Saens: Morceau de Concert pour cor et orchestra (1887) (8.47)

11. Marshall-Hall: Phantasy for horn and orchestra (1905) (10.18)

*world premier recording  **ditto, in this version

Despite knowing Barry Tuckwell – the horn player with ‘golden’ bel canto – retired from solo performing in the late 1990’s, one still, albeit momentarily, immediately and nostalgically thinks one will hear his magic at work on any new disc devoted to horn music (and bearing his name on the cover).  But this latest Melba Recording shows his magic at work as a conductor (of The Queensland Orchestra and Orchestra Victoria) as he provides

steadfast support and subtle interaction with another horn player: Ben Jacks.  A changing of the guard perhaps?

Not Quite.  However it could be forgiven for assuming there would be, at least stylistically, a similarity between Barry Tuckwell, in his peerless days, and Ben Jacks, who has just crossed the starting line.  There would be an ‘en rapport’ of the minds.  But Jacks is no Barry Tuckwell.  His style, approach and his sense of shading are altogether different.  It might be argued that his technique doesn’t, as yet, have the satin finish or fluency of the master but, as this disc so nicely projects, Jacks has a fine talent which will mature technically as it continues to assert its stamp of individuality.  Moreover, it is a bit unfair to compare a present-day aspirant to a legend.

The disc leaves little room for equivocation about its target audience, which happens to be the bulk of the concert-going audience.  It does, however, seem a pity to bring together all this Australian flair and dexterity in the service of so much tonal or quasi-tonal French music.  One began to sense a distinct lack of music which possesses true rhythmic edge and harmonic bite, so to speak.  For example, the opening item – ‘Concerto pour cor et orchestre’ by Damase – was written in 1995 but, for the most part, would probably have been considered passé in 1895!

Damase has made much of his “sincerity” in composition…as he turns his back on Messiaen, Boulez and even ‘Les Six’.  It isn’t his sincerity one would question in this concerto (or his orchestration, which is impeccably textbook) but his mode of telling, which is anachronistic to the point of aristocratic aloofness.  Even the developments of Debussy, who, incidentally, won the Prix de Rome just 63 years prior to Damase’s bestowal, are ignored.

Having to perform a score which is weak in design and stereotypical in language doesn’t appear to have detracted from Jacks’ excellent moulding of phrases or displaying flexibility of timbre, nor a listener from appreciating these qualities in his playing.  The ‘Moderato’ movement is the longest of the four by a considerable amount, in French horn terms.  But at no point could one fault the soloist’s approach.  Similarly, the orchestra, while giving him both fine support and balanced interaction, was beautifully unified and technically copperplate.

The ‘Andante’ (third movement) afforded Jacks the opportunity to display his excellent breath control through extended lines.  He always reserved just sufficient to neatly complete the passage.  Nor did he lose the characteristic warm, dark beauty of tone over a surprisingly wide range (a true Tuckwell hallmark).  One was also struck by the orchestra’s rich, Philadelphia-honeyed tone: Romantic music’s soul mate!



The ‘Allegro’ movements of the concerto were brief to an extent that made one ponder why it is that ultra-traditionalist composers appear to experience difficulty sustaining a fast paced musical discourse.   Whatever the reason, such an architecturally frail structure doesn’t give the soloist a chance to show a sense of large scale thinking in his performance.  As more and more fiercely competitive and gifted younger soloists come forward, the more and more one is hearing such questionable nooks and crannies of the  repertoire and, consequently, the more one finds oneself writing how impossible it is to critique a performer’s ability to negotiate overall dynamic form.  And this is a case in point. 

This recording also contains Damase’s ‘Rhapsodie pour cor et orchestre’, commissioned by Barry Humphries and premiered, in 1986, with Tuckwell as soloist.  There’s a lot to remark on those facts alone; not the least of which is why Humphries, who I wouldn’t have thought of being that much of a traditionalist, commissioned a Frenchman and why, specifically, Damase.  Perhaps what is more consequential is the programmatic outline of the commission: “inspired by the ocean and the atmosphere of the coast”.

Programmatic music depends entirely on who listens to it – a detail some composers and most audiences, in a moment of wistfulness, seem to forget.  Generally the composer provides a few ‘shared’ musical archetypes to help guide the imagination, but there are no motivic antecedents or dynamic rises and falls or even the plaintive cry of some seabird in Damase’s ‘Rhapsodie’.  In fact, there are so many gestures – unrelated gestures – all jostling for face-room and for no ostensible reason, that one wonders what’s holding the music together…apart from stylistic clichés.

And it pains the heart to realise that Ben Jacks’ excellent perception of sound colour is using this music as its showcase.  The score certainly requires considerable dexterity of the soloist and, in that sense only, Jacks executes such difficult passages with admirable panache and security.  It would be a delight to round off this compliment by mentioning the soloist’s ability to punctuate the texture with precision and poise but, as the music hasn’t a skerrick of rhythmic vitality, it is impossible to do so.

Paul Dukas’ ‘Villanelle’ (orchestrated by Paul Terracini) is, compositionally, more successful.  This is somewhat at odds with the fact that it was written as a competition piece (for horn and piano).  True to its purpose, it contains almost every conceivable technical snorter and arabesque.  But the musical thread is maintained while traversing the minefield.

In this performance, the horn and orchestra (much to the arranger’s credit) combine to find a depth of interplay that one wouldn’t expect to come across in a work designed, primarily, to winnow competitors.  They convincingly balance the performance to give the final climax its proper emphasis.  Jacks sure-footedly, but never hastily, negotiates the difficulties with notable élan.



While the recording has other works – each portraying a different view of late French Romanticism – it is Marshall-Hall’s ‘Phantasy for horn and orchestra’ that stands out as an oddity.  Its aberrance lies, firstly, in the fact that it was written by an Englishman (an Englishman living and teaching in Australia) and, secondly, the intrigue surrounding his life.

In purely musical terms, the ‘Phantasy’, despite displaying some fairly interesting and slightly quirky Wagnerian harmonies, lets the listener’s mind wander when it shouldn’t.  Also, unless I’m shamefully mistaken, Jacks doesn’t quite reach a few of the lowest notes with the same degree of confidence he has shown elsewhere on the disc.  To call this a ‘minor offence’ – words with which Marshall-Hall would, I’m sure, agree – would be an over-reaction.

This is a disc which shows class and finery in all aspects of production.  If you enjoy your music with every note glowing in Romantic French splendour then this is your type of recording.  While you relish its lyricism and sentimentality, spare a moment to realise these younger Australian musicians are, steadily and confidently, attempting to try on the mantles of master performers.  It’s a journey in process, as this album shows.

Stuart Hille 2009.

N.B.  The information leaflet, which isn’t one of those ‘struggle to pull out/can’t push back booklets’, is to be lauded.  Its author, John Humphries, plots the history of the evolution of the horn and relates it to the music being offered.  He should start ‘how to’ classes in leaflet writing because, in this instance, his notes are exemplary.


Stuart Hille  2009.



Samson and Delilah (Saint Saens)
W.A.Opera Company and Chorus
W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Supreme Court Gardens


Reviewed by Neville Cohn

Despite competing events such as a concert at Leeuwin Estate and the Western Force versus Chiefs rugby match, some fifteen thousand spectators turned up for what has become one of the most loved Perth institutions: the annual Opera in the Park presentation in Supreme Court Gardens.

Seated on rugs or lawn, mums and dads with kiddies in arms or prams, surrounded by an agreeable clutter of eskies, picnic baskets, chicken salad and chardonnay bottles, were an exemplarily well behaved audience experiencing what for most would probably have been a first encounter with Saint Saens’ operatic treatment of the biblical story of Samson.

In passing, it’s worth mentioning that, despite the immense inherent drama of this ancient story (which, prior to Saint Saens’ work, was given at least eleven operatic treatments including one by Rameau to a libretto by none other than Voltaire) no one has so far succeeded in creating a setting that is fully worthy of it.

Seldom heard anywhere in the antipodes, the ancient story of the Bible’s muscle man and the faithless temptress Delilah is, for much of the work and especially in Acts 1 and 2 – dare one whisper it? – as arid and featureless as the desert sands that surround Gaza where the opera is set. Thousands of years later, Gaza is still very much in the news – and for all the worst reasons.

Stuart Skelton in the eponymous role was star of the evening, a tenor ideally suited to the role. For much of the performance, he produced the most agreeable stream of mellow sound in phrasing that was the hallmark of refined musicianship. Certainly, he adapted chameleon-like to the many interpretative nuances of the part. The closing moments of the opera were particularly affecting as Samson – his locks shorn by Delilah (an event that, oddly, is not mentioned in the work), his strength dissipated as a result and, in Milton’s chilling phrase ‘eyeless in Gaza’ – calls on the Lord who gives back Samson’s strength to bring Dagon’s temple crashing down on the Philistines.

Bernadette Cullen sang Delilah. Some occasional hardness of tone aside, she presented her arias with considerable expressiveness – but in Softly Awakes My heart, that most famous excerpt from the opera, strings sounded rather too thin and scrappy, the semiquaver accompaniment lacking that pulsing quality that is so crucial an interpretative requirement.

Acts 3 and 4 yielded some of the most satisfying listening dividends of the evening. The fake-Middle Eastern Bacchanale dance sequence – imitated again and again down the years by composers for trashy, Arabian Nights-type movies – came across in fine style. Laurels to Joel Marangella; his sinuous oboe line was heard to excellent advantage here.

Under Brian Castles-Onion’s direction, the W.A.Opera Chorus and vocal soloists did sterling work in making the listener aware of the cauldron of seething emotion that makes the closing Acts such compelling listening. Very much earlier in the piece, it was much to the credit of the choristers that they made the frankly tedious declamations that the composer gave to them sound better than they in fact are in operatic terms. Indeed, most of the choral work in Act I supports the argument, often put forward, that Saint Saens’ biblical epic might have had greater acceptance as an oratorio than as an opera.

But there are most certainly moments that make for the grandest of grand operatic effects. This is most powerfully the case with Delilah, towards the close of the work, relishing her moment of triumph after cutting Samson’s locks, with the High Priest (Bruce Martin) gloating over the muscle man’s downfall, only to have their comeuppance in the ruins of the temple.

For many an older member of the audience, this may well recall the closing moments of Cecil B. de Mille’s 1950’s movie epic starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in the film’s eponymous roles.

Smaller roles were taken by David Dockery (Abimelech) and Robert Hoffmann (Old Hebrew).



Adding to the pleasure of the evening was an unexpected bonus for all during the interval: a white-clad, gracefully gyrating gymnast held aloft by a big, illuminated helium balloon sailing to and fro above the gathered, fascinated throng, the balloon’s track path controlled by ropes gripped by two hefty young fellows on the ground. (The previous night, this delight sailed across PIAF goings-on at Kalgoorlie, with Port Hedland next on the list.)

I cannot readily recall an Opera in the Park presentation that scored so well on so many counts. Presenting Samson and Delilah would have been a calculated risk. That so many attended suggests that it is not necessarily the case that only safe, top-ten operas should be presented at these events. Let’s have more works that are less frequently encountered here. What about Tchaikowsky’s Eugene Onegin, Donizetti’s Elisir d’amore or Smetana’s The Bartered Bride?

Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn