Monthly Archives: November 2003

Elandra Ensemble

Elandra Ensemble

Callaway Auditorium

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Tapping into the seemingly limitless repertoire of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, the musicians of the Elandra Ensemble (a loose coalition of professionals drawn mainly from the W.A.Symphony Orchestra) played a number of his idiosyncratic tangos as well as music by Istvan Marta and two of the Elandra musicians. But while Piazzolla represented the lion’s share of the program, it was Blues for Gilbert by Mark Glentworth that proved the chief joy of the evening.

Percussionist Paul Tanner, who has been a stalwart of the local music scene for a good many years, was at his persuasive best at the vibraphone. Much of the work is couched in gentle, languid terms and here Tanner did wonders, using his mallets to produce delicate arabesques, note streams clothed in auras of glowing sound. And in more robust episodes, he employed multi-mallets with trademark control and accuracy.

I very much admired, too, the ensemble’s account of Piazzolla’s Fugato which came across as a fascinating exercise in quasi-Bachian style, with Catherine Cahill (clarinet), Zac Rowntree (violin), Tanner on percussion, Tom O’Halloran (piano) and Peter Jeavons on double bass demonstrating an iron nerve and a cool mind to bring this tango to exhilarating life. Stylistically, it was entirely convincing.

And O’Halloran’s own Guapo which oscillated between swagger and swoon, employed rapidly repeated chords to dramatic effect.

Piazzolla’s Soledad was another delight, not least for its wide range of timbres, including warm, dark tone from the clarinet’s chalumeau register, a groaning double bass and vibraphone keys struck with the wooden reverse ends of the mallets.

Also on the bill was Piazzolla’s Michelangelo ’70, an engaging miniature with little screams on the violin and an irresistible, toe-tapping rhythmic underpinning.

© November 2003

Verdi Discoveries

Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi

Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

DECCA 473 767-2

TPT: 1:20:48

reviewed by Neville Cohn


This is a fascinating compilation, not only for legions of Verdi enthusiasts but anyone interested in music seldom heard either in concert venues or on disc or radio. In fact, no fewer than four of the ten tracks are claimed to be world premiere recordings.

It is not generally known that Verdi was considered an unusually fine pianist who seriously entertained the possibility of becoming a fulltime virtuoso. Fortunately for posterity, he opted for composition.

The score of Verdi’s Variations should be marked ‘for virtuosos only’. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet is unquestionably in that category ­ and here he demonstrates his extraordinary command of the keyboard with such verve and style that, for the duration of the performance, he makes the work sound far more significant than it really is. In Thibaudet’s hands, trash becomes treasure. In this sense, the French superstar of the piano is a musical illusionist of the first order.

Also on disc is the Aida Sinfonia which Verdi wrote to take the place of the opera’s original overture. Unsurprisingly, after Verdi heard his Sinfonia in rehearsal, he withdrew it and went back to his original because the Sinfonia is so intensely dramatic in mood and tone that, as liner note writer Dino Rizzo puts it, there was the risk of it ‘putting the characters themselves in the shade’.

Collectors of musical trivia might like to know that this was one of the very few scores that Toscanini, whose reverence for the printed note was a byword, felt compelled to alter before giving its first public performance as recently as March 1940.

Verdi’s Sinfonia in C, a prentice work (not to be confused with the Aida Sinfonia), is also well worth listening to despite its rather unadventurous harmonies and tendency to resort to cliché. Nimble, fluent strings are in excellent fettle here, so, too, the trumpets.

A bustling introduction gives way to some wondrously accomplished oboe playing in Canto di Virginia, a set of variations on a theme that enable Alessandro Potenza to demonstrate a phenomenal command of this most treacherous of wind instruments. Certainly here, Potenza succeeds in taming this wild child of the woodwind choir to do his bidding in even the most villainously demanding measures. Potenza produces a stream of sound so fine and pure that it would surely coax even the grumpiest bird from a twig.

Also on disc is a Prelude to Otello, a work Verdi put aside on the advice of librettist Boito. Conductor Riccardo Chailly learned of its existence only very recently, giving this gem its first performance (for this CD) in Milan in 2002.

Another novelty is the Capriccio for bassoon and orchestra which, the liner notes tell us, cannot definitely be attributed to Verdi but is included anyway. Whether by Verdi or another hand, the Capriccio is a pleasantly amiable piece made memorable for the agility and mellow tone of Andrea Magnani.

© November 2003

The Last Recital

Fritz Wunderlich (tenor)
Hubert Giesen (piano)
Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Richard Strauss

DG 9806790

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

The history of music is replete with instances where the circumstances surrounding the composition or performance of this or that work are so unusual that it is difficult, if not impossible, to listen to it divorced, as it were, from the events associated with it. A prime instance is that of pianist David Helfgott whose extraordinary life inspired the hit movie Shine. After attending numberless recitals by Helfgott, for instance, my reactions to his playing cannot avoid being coloured by an awareness of his severe illness and how he copes with it.

Kathleen Ferrier, that superb contralto, is another who springs to mind; her brave battle against terminal cancer – and her determination to keep giving recitals until almost the very end – endeared her to a huge audience around the world.

Now, DG has released a compact disc – The Last Recital – featuring tenor Fritz Wunderlich with pianist Hubert Giesen in a performance given for the Edinburgh Festival. In the ordinary course of events, this mono tape recording would probably have landed up on some or other music library shelf and simply forgotten, perhaps even wiped.

But events that took place shortly after that recital militated strongly against its abandonment or destruction.

Only a week before his 36th birthday and only days after his Edinburgh recital, Wunderlich fell down a flight of stone steps at a friend’s castle in Heidelberg and died from his injuries. It was a terrible loss for his family and friends – and it also robbed the world of his extraordinary artistry.

It should be said that the surviving tapes of Wunderlich’s last recital were second, possibly third, generation. In electronic terms, it was a compromised recording – and there was no technology at the time to produce an acceptable commercial recording from it. Certainly, it was not without blemish in performance terms. And had the great tenor not had that tragic accident, it is doubtful whether these tapes would ever have been seriously considered as a marketable commodity.

All this changed, of course, in the aftermath of Wunderlich’s death. But it is only recently that technology has developed to a point where rescuing these tapes became a realistic proposition. The sound engineers have done wonders. In a tour de force of electronic wizardry, they have transformed what would now be considered a basket case in sound-engineering terms, into an acceptable, if not flawless, listening experience.

Occasional blips notwithstanding, the artistry of Wunderlich and Giesen is, for much of the time, magical and magically preserved. Now and then, Giesen uses the damper pedal too generously with resultant blur. And, here and there, a vocal phrase is less than immaculate – but these detract only minimally from listening pleasure.

Their account of Schumann’s Dichterliebe is interpretation at an impressive level. Wunderlich breathes tenderness and ardour into these exquisite vignettes – and, for the most part, Giesen provides accompaniments fit for royalty to which Wunderlich responds with princely authority.

This represents the lion’s share of the recording. As well, there are lieder by Schubert and Beethoven – and Richard Strauss’ Ich trage meine Minne, mistakenly cut off by the engineers before its end.

Wunderlich’s last encore is deeply poignant. Heartbreakingly – and unknowingly at the time, of course, this last lied – Schubert’s An die Musik, that most tender of salutations to the magic of music – was to be Wunderlich’s swan song, his musical farewell to the world.

© November 2003

VIVALDI The Four Seasons

Concerto for 2 violins RV522
Concerto for 2 violins RV511
Nigel Kennedy (violin)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

EMI 7243 5 57647 20
TPT: 1:01:45

   reviewed by Neville Cohn 

Yet another recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? Is not the catalogue overburdened with versions of this well-worn work? Is there a good reason for yet another recording coming on to the market? These are some of the questions that even the most die-hard Vivaldi enthusiasts might be asking themselves. Is there anything about this umpteenth version that makes the effort and cost to produce it worthwhile?

Yes! Very much so.

Why? One has only to listen to the opening measures of the work to realise that there IS a special factor at play (no pun intended) here. This account put me in mind of a recital by Ivo Pogorelich that I attended a good many years ago. It was a program of standard keyboard master works – a French Suite by Bach, a sonata by Beethoven and a bracket of Chopin pieces.

Just before that recital began, I asked myself the same questions I’ve just posed about Kennedy’s recording. Was this going to be yet another routinely professional, polished effort – or would it be something to write home about. It was – and for much the same reason that makes Nigel Kennedy’s Four Seasons so compellingly listenable.

After Pogorelich’s recital, I resorted to a botanical analogy, as I do here. Consider a flower, say, a rosebud. It is instantly recognisable as such. .Now, imagine an intensely bright shaft of light shining upwards from the base of the bud. Instantly, we will see the contours of unopened petals within the bud and the traceries of its venous system as well as the stamen at its heart, ALL invisible to the naked eye until the light was projected through the bud.

Now, the bud has not in any way altered. It is still the same bud. But, because of the very bright shaft of light projected through it, our understanding – and appreciation – of the bud has broadened and deepened.

As with Pogorelich, so with Kennedy. Without resorting to gimmickry or playing to the gallery, the performance, like the light through the bud, gives us a more intimate understanding of the music, it draws us into the heart of the music, giving us a greater appreciation of its worth. And that is far harder to do than one might imagine. It calls for absolute control of the instrument, a profound understanding of style – and an ability to reveal (as does the shaft of light) – the inner essence of the music. Kennedy achieves this to superb effect. It is this that elevates his reading of the Four Seasons to a very high category of excellence. In this recording, as if drawing inspiration from their soloist and director, the strings of the BPO play with a vitality and style that do them – and their great soloist – proud. In the two concertos for two violins, Kennedy is joined by an on-form Daniel Stabrawa.

The sound engineers have done a superb job with wraparound corporate tone that makes one feel as if we are listening from a seat within the orchestra. It gives a marvellous immediacy to the presentation. In the finale of the concerto RV522, the rich, grainy tone, rhythmic bite and concentrated energy that inform even the meanest phrase, makes for electrifying listening. Highly recommended.

© November 2003

Symphony No 2 (Resurrection) (Gustav Mahler)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vienna Singverein
Latonia Moore (soprano)
Nadja Michael (mezzo soprano)
Gilbert Kaplan (conductor)

DG 474 380-2
TPT: 1:25:48


 reviewed by Neville Cohn

Gilbert Kaplan is most definitely not your run-of-the-mill orchestral conductor. It would be an understatement to say that his repertoire is restricted. In fact, it is so compact that it puts Kaplan in a unique category, a functioning orchestral conductor with little more than just one musical arrow in his quiver. True. it’s a huge arrow, nothing less than Mahler’s massive Symphony No 2, known as The Resurrection.

For the record, it should be noted that some years ago, Kaplan made a one-off recording of another work, also by Mahler – the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony for the Pickwick label. And on one other occasion, as the curtain-raiser to yet another performance of Mahler’s Second, Kaplan was required to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in The Star Spangled Banner (the national anthem of the USA). These two diversions aside, it is Mahler’s Second that has been, and continues to be, Kaplan’s unremitting preoccupation.

What are Kaplan’s credentials? At which conservatoriums of music did he study to prepare for this challenge? And with which masters? And how many years were devoted to bringing Kaplan to his unique level of symphonic understanding?

The answers – which came in a late-night telephone conversation with Gilbert Kaplan speaking from his New York home – are astounding.

Like many American children, little Gilbert had piano lessons between the ages of 7 and 10 years. And then nothing – nothing at all – for thirty years during which Kaplan pursued a publishing career that netted him a fortune before he embarked on the musical pilgrimage that has made him famous.

His achievement is staggering, the musical equivalent of, say, spending three years of childhood reading nursery rhymes and then, 30 years later, walking on stage to give a world-class characterisation of Shakespeare’s King Lear or Richard III.

In 1965, when Kaplan was 25 years old and working as a stockbroker, he heard Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony for the first time; Leopold Stokowski conducted.

It was an epiphanic experience that was to alter the course of his life – but not for another 17 years.

In the interim, Kaplan went into publishing , and when he eventually sold his Institutional Investor magazine (which had a circulation of 140,000 in 140 countries and received 45 awards for distinguished journalism), it made Kaplan an immensely wealthy man. It gave him the freedom to focus on what has become his life’s work to which he brings an almost visionary intensity.

When, in 1982, Kaplan turned his attention to Mahler’s symphony, “I worked 4 to 5 hours a day, sometimes longer, seven days a week for seven months with a young conductor – Charles Bornstein”.

Kaplan says the beginning was very hard indeed for him – and after working through the first 14 pages of the score, he wondered whether he had taken on an insuperable challenge. He considered throwing in the towel – until he realised, as he explained over the phone, that every journey starts with a single step and that each page studied was a page nearer his goal.

Heartened by these reflections, Kaplan persevered . Then he hired the American Symphony Orchestra so that he could conduct Mahler’s Second at Carnegie Hall. The ASO agreed to this on condition that no critics were invited to the performance. But in the audience there was a reviewer who wrote the concert up for New York’s Village Voice – and the rest is unique music history.

Kaplan’s 1987 recording of the work with the London Symphony Orchestra sold 175,000 copies, the biggest numbers ever for a Mahler CD.

Kaplan conducts this vast opus from memory, using, as his musical Bible, Mahler’s original manuscript with its teeming alterations. This DG CD is the premiere recording of the new official score.

Whatever one may think of Kaplan’s modest repertoire list , he is impressively prepared in music terms to make a recording of Mahler’s Second, a daunting hurdle for anyone, even the most seasoned of orchestral directors. It’s hardly a pushover. In fact, its vast and treacherous musical landscape has been the graveyard of more than a few conducting reputations. And Kaplan? How does he fare?

After listening to his direction of the work not once but several times, I would have to say that he comes across as a master guide, taking us over Mahler’s vast music la ndscape, along the way pointing out every copse and cranny in so persuasive a way that territory that we had previously thought we were familiar with is, through the medium of Kaplan’s guidance, magically transformed so that we get a new, utterly engrossing appreciation of this colossal symphony.

There is an irrefutable logic to his direction of the work, a frankly thrilling response to its myriad subtleties of tempo, timbre and tone. And his ability to inform even the meanest succession of notes with deep meaning while not for a moment losing sight of the epic overall design of the whole gives to it a sense of completeness that makes this recording the standard by which all other recorded performances of the work must now be measured.

That this has been brought about by a musician with almost negligible initial training makes it a near-miraculous achievement.

The Vienna Philharmonic is, of course, more than a world-beating orchestra. It is famous for its uneasy relationship with Mahler and the resentment it exhibited towards the man they had themselves elected as their conductor. Here, the VPO is, to say the least, on its very best behaviour, as are vocal soloists Latonia Moore and Nadja Michael and the Wiener Singverein.

It would have been a formidable prospect for any conductor, even the most experienced and professional, to direct the Resurrection Symphony in the august, history-steeped environment of the Vienna Musiekverein. But after listening to Kaplan’s recording made in this symphonic holy of holies and Mahler’s erstwhile stamping ground, it has to be said that he is more than up to its daunting chal lenges.

Kaplan has already directed the Second with more than 50 orchestras around the world including Melbourne in 1994 and in Beijing, China the following year, the first time it had ever been performed there.

In 2004, he will preside over three performances of the Second in Washington and, later in the year, going on to conduct the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra.

In passing: for all his phenomenal achievements, Gilbert Kaplan is a profoundly humble man. He considers himself an amateur in the original sense of loving the work he does and doing it purely for
the pleasure he derives from it. He declines fees for his conducting. And if he is paid, he donates the fee back to the orchestra. He will, though, accept travel and accommodation costs.

This recording of the Second, runs for 85 minutes. Each one of them is magical.

© November 2003