Monthly Archives: December 2003

Israel in Egypt (Handel)

Israel in Egypt (Handel)


St George’s Cathedral Chorus and Sinfonia
St George’s Cathedral

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

Unlike the bad old days when choirs singing Handel’s oratorios would routinely outnumber the accompanying orchestra five or so to one, we heard Israel in Egypt at St George’s Cathedral where, give or take a few, there were about as many in the choir as the orchestra. These would have been roughly the numbers Handel had in mind when writing the oratorio – and, some reservations aside, this worked well. But in so large a space as the cathedral, one sensed a need at choral climaxes for some modest beefing up of choral numbers to more adequately ride the crest of the accompanying orchestral wave which, in turn, could have done with some strengthening of the strings to underscore the grandeur of the oratorio’s more spectacular choruses.

In the minds of many oratorio fanciers, Israel in Egypt, qualitatively, ranks higher even than Messiah which has been Handel’s top box office draw for centuries. I dare say that because Handel’s take on the Old Testament Exodus story concentrates primarily on choral items, it is less attractive to concertgoers for whom Handel’s solo arias are the chief appeal. The loss is their’s because Israel in Egypt brims with some of the Master’s happiest inspirations.

“He gave them hailstones”, for instance, is magnificent music – and, under Simon Lawford’s direction, the trumpeters and choristers responded to it with commendable attack and follow-through. And Tim White’s thudding kettle drums added significantly to the choir’s response as they sang “But the waters overwhelmed their enemies”. Earlier, in “But as for His people”, vocal lines coalesced and separated in a consistently musical way. But in some of the less-convincing choral contributions, some weaknesses of the inner voices tended to blur details.

It was a particularly good night for the brass with trumpets adding a memorable dimension to “The Lord shall reign”. But if strings sounded dismayingly scrappy in the introduction to “The Lord is my strength”, they were much on their mettle in rapid passagework simulating the buzz and whine of flies, lice and locusts in the chorus about those plagues visited upon the Egyptians. I admired, too, the sturdiness of the striding accompaniment to “The Lord shall reign forever”.

Vocal soloists were drawn from the choir – and of these, Jonathan Daventry shone with an echt alto quality and clear diction that gave point and meaning to his account of “Their land brought forth frogs”. There was also an impressive offering by bass Andrew Moran. And if there was some forcing of the tone in Stuart Haycock’s aria “The enemy said”, his recitatives were uniformly polished.

Hopefully, this imaginative alternative to yet another airing of Handel’s Messiah will set a trend towards more enterprising oratorio choices for Perth. What about Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ which hasn’t been mounted here in years – or Handel’s Samson?

© December 2003

Christmas Oratorio (J.S.Bach)

Christmas Oratorio (J.S.Bach)


University of Western Australia Choral Society

Winthrop Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

Unlike Handel’s Messiah which, for many choristers and concertgoers, is inextricably associated with Xmas (even though barely a quarter of it relates to the Nativity story), Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is entirely concerned with events surrounding the birth of Christ.

Because Handel’s masterpiece is so frequently mounted in Perth, it is ingrained in the musical psyche of many, if not most, choristers who might well be able to sing much of it from memory.

Not so the Christmas Oratorio which, unaccountably (because it is one of the most meaningful and sheerly beautiful meditations on the Nativity), is only very rarely heard locally. And if in many of Bach’s choruses, attack was tentative, it might well have been due to lack of familiarity with a difficult score on the part of the singers ­ and possibly not quite enough rehearsal time to build up confidence. Inner vocal lines were not always as clear and carefully pitched as one might have hoped.

For all this, there was much that gave pleasure in the choruses that dot the score, largely due to John Beaverstock’s excellent choice of tempi – and an often pleasingly responsive orchestra. Apart from the opening movement, one of Bach’s most superb celebratory essays, in which the pace adopted was far too fast to allow its inherent joyousness to register satisfyingly on the consciousness, Beaverstock’s pace-setting was almost beyond criticism. In Glory be to God, an upbeat tempo and delightfully light choral textures combined to ravishing effect.

But it was in the work’s many chorales that the UWA Choral Society came into its own. There is a gravitas about many of these episodes that very effectively counter-balances the unsullied happiness that informs so much of the other writing for chorus. Here, too, Beaverstock’s tempi were beyond reproach. And the good, sturdy pace at which Rejoice and Sing was taken sounded entirely right.

Throughout, a small orchestra did wonders in support of both chorus and vocal soloists. It was a particularly good night for the trumpeters, with Jenny Coleman leading her sub-section with distinction, their silvery-toned fanfares and tricky high-register outbursts gauged to a nicety. This was especially evident in the introduction to Lord, when our Haughty Foe, given a gloriously ecstatic edge by the trumpeters.

There was a deal of fine horn playing, notably from Darryl Poulsen. And oboists, apart from some weakening of concentration in the introduction to part 2, were much on their mettle.

Of the vocal soloists, soprano Emma Pearson, after a tentative start, gave impressive evidence of growing vocal confidence. In Nought against the Power, she scaled the heights, producing a stream of ringing vocal tone that projected effortlessly into the auditorium. This was deeply affecting singing. And she came into her own yet again in the famous echo aria ­ Ah! My Saviour ­ clothing each phrase in glowing tone to which oboes responded beautifully; Katja Webb very effectively contributed the echo effect. Alto Emma Foster was clearly unwell but soldiered on gamely until the end. And although Stuart Haycock as the Evangelist brought pleasing clarity of diction to his many recitatives, there was a tendency to strain and force the tone. Baritone Andrew Moran sang with sense and sensibility.

© December 2003

New I Voci Singers

New I Voci Singers

Perth Modern School Auditorium


reviewed by Neville Cohn

In the lead-up to its first overseas concert tour, John Christmass’ New I Voci Singers presented the program they will offer audiences during their performances in Germany.

Guests of honour were the Governor of Western Australia, Lt-General John Sanderson and Mrs Sanderson as well as the German Consul in Perth, Mr William Hassell and Mrs Hassell.

Over the years, concertgoers have come to expect high levels of performance whenever the indefatigable John Christmass is at the helm – and this farewell concert was no exception.

A bracket of three Stanford motets came across as a finely stated musical triptych in which vocal lines separated and coalesced in a beautifully controlled and meaningful way. Here, and throughout the evening, the choristers drew on a deep well of expressiveness which brought freshness to familiar notes.

This was again apparent in a consistently stylish bracket of popular songs, including Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm and Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’, fine singing enhanced time and again by Alex Roberts’ thoughtful and stylish accompaniments at the piano.

In passing: this chamber choir sings these lighter items with such verve and impeccable grasp of style that serious thought should be given to preserving the best of the choir’s efforts in the genre on compact disc.

An instrumental interlude featured Philip Murray and Alex Roberts in a pleasingly musical account of Saint Saens’ Romance for flute and piano. And Mark Alderson came up trumps in the Toreador’s Song from Bizet’s Carmen, as did Justin Freind who, as always, sounded entirely in tune (no pun intended) with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes.

The very rarely heard Gloria by Puccini was the most substantial offering of the evening with Christmass coaxing a gratifyingly unified response from his forces in both vocal and interpretative terms.

Throughout the evening, a succession of images appropriate to each work was projected on to the rear wall of the stage. These visuals did much to enhance the overall impact of the performance notwithstanding the effective blotting-out of the lower section of each image by the dark, wooden gallery that runs across the rear wall of the auditorium.

The New I Voci Singers have maintained a high profile during 2003, featuring, as they did, in ANZAC Day and Commonwealth Sunday ceremonies, two Mozart at Twilight concerts as well as the annual Best of British presentation at Perth Concert Hall.

© December 2003


Berlin Phiharmonic Orchestra
The MET Orchestra*
James Levine (conductor)
Siegfried Idyll (Wagner), Verklaerte Nacht (Schoenberg),
opus 6 (Alban Berg), Six Pieces, opus 6 (Webern), Five Pieces, opus 16 (Schoenberg)`

DG 469 804-2 (2-CD)
TPT: 2:38:00


reviewed by Neville Cohn

Perhaps it is only those who can recall the days before the invention of the long playing record who can fully appreciate the miracle of the compact disc.

How very different expectations were in pre-LP days when a playing duration of 5 or 6 minutes was considered good value from a 12″, 78rpm shellac record.

Even the shortest work included in this compilation would have needed a good many shellac records to be heard in its entirety. Blissfully here, we’re able to listen to it without the sort of interruptions that were par for the course in the days of the 78s.

A vivid childhood memory is of my father stacking four or five or even more records on the turntable’s central spindle and how at intervals one after another of the records would crash down on the revolving turntable.

But if, say, side two was on the reverse side of record one, the stacking method was not possible and it would be necessary to manually lift the record after side one had been played, flip it over and replace it on the turntable . That this cumbersome arrangement was accepted for the most part uncomplainingly, now almost beggars belief.

Then, in 1948, came the long playing record which was a quantum leap forward, once again revolutionising t he way we listened to recorded music. This, many believed, was a breakthrough that would never be surpassed. It was looked on as the ultimate achievement in uninterrupted listening – and, at the time, there was nothing better available. Unquestionably, the 33 and one third rpm LP was a huge improvement on what had gone before. And the prospect of listening to twenty minutes or more of completely uninterrupted music was greeted with hosannas as a near-miraculous advance in technology.

(How many, I wonder, can recall that other, short-lived development, an LP running at 16 and two thirds rpm that made a sensational but brief appearance before being quietly dropped by its manufacturers.)

Some years later, it was the turn of the sound cassette, that ,too, heralded as THE breakthrough to take the world by storm. Yet again , it was considered a development of such significance that it would forever remain the standard by which all other recording processes would be measured . Wrong again. The CD, superseding all that had gone before, was, predictably, greeted with waving palm fronds and a mad rush to buy the new technology .

Right now, there are those declaring this to be the ultimate in recording technology, an achievement that can never be matched. Really? History teaches otherwise; the compact disc , for all its many attributes, may yet turn out to be just another way- station on the journey to ever better recording techniques.

For the present, the CD unquestionably provides listeners with longer uninterrupted stretches of music than ever before – and, more often than not, beautifully recorded without the crackles, hiss and pop that were the inevitable accompaniment to music played on shellac recordings.

Compilers such as the indefatigable Cyrus Meher-Homji have done wonders in exploiting the potential of the CD to advantage, bringing landmark recordings in formats that are as competitive price-wise as they are qualitatively excellent.

The Transfiguration compilation is a case in point, more than two and a half hours of some of James Levine’s most accomplished interpretations. Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklarung is a frankly marvellous reading, a particularly fine instance of Levine’s great gift for allowing the music to speak for itself. Here, as ever, Levine is scrupulous in avoid ing the temptation to interpose himself between the music and the listener, so allowing the work , as it were, to speak for itself.

Trademark fastidious attention to the minutiae of performance Without losing sight of the overall design of whatever work Levine happens to be directing, makes this CD a joy from start to finish..

The Strauss tone poem is played by New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with which Levine has had a long and distinguished association. All the other works are presented by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from which Levine coaxes readings at stellar levels.

His account of Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht borders on the sublime. This is a performance to savour with its perfectly evoked atmosphere of anguished despair that informs so much of the writing. Levine’s touch is faultless, too, in the extended episode that describes acceptance by the male protagonist of his partner’s pregnancy by another. And the compassionate tenderness the BPO and Levine convey is a stunning achievement. The CD is worth having if only for this exquisite interpretation .

There’s more splendour in Berg’s Three Pieces, opus 6 with Levine providing yet another moodfest. This is some of Berg’s most imaginative writing. Certainly, Levine and the BPO respond splendidly to the opening movement, with its eerie murmurs suggestive of desolation and fear. And the concluding movement calls to mind a procession of tortured phantoms.

In less than expert hands, Berg’s work can so easily sound meandering and terminally tedious. Here, every subtle nuance is captured in a way that would surely have brought approving nods from Berg himself had the shade of the great composer hovered over the proceedings.

There’s magic, too, in Levine’s direction of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll , the tenderness that informs so much of the writing evoked to the nth degree.

This CD is a celebration of excellence. Highly recommended.

© December 2003

2003 – Music in Perth

An Overview                                           2003

reviewed by Neville Cohn

The death of an elder statesman of music, a visible greying of concert audiences, the possibility of the Terrace Proms collapsing ­ and the first ever performance in Perth of one of Wagner’s Ring cycle operas made 2003 a memorable year year for concertgoers.

After a long illness, emeritus professor Sir Frank Callaway, arguably Australia’s best known music educationist in international terms and founder of the University of Western Australia’s School of Music, died, full of years and honours.

Mere hours after his passing, a message of congratulations he’d dictated from his sickbed was read out to an emotional gathering to launch long-time colleague Wallace Tate’s book The Magic Touch, a treatise on piano technique and one of the most significant works of its sort to come off the printing presses in years.

The W.A.Symphony Orchestra notched up 75 years, a notable milestone marked by the publication of Marcia Harrison’s book Celebrating 75 Years as well as the commissioning by the WASO of fifteen Australian composers to produce 15 short works for orchestra. The last of these, by veteran musician Peter Sculthorpe, featured in the WASO’s last Master Series concert for the year. The 15 works will be released on an ABC Classics CD in 2004.

Of all W.A. music organisations, incidentally, it is only the WASO management which has tackled the endless problem of audience coughing in a practical and effective way by continuing through 2003 to offer throat lozenges gratis to anyone wishing to use them. It’s a long-standing initiative that might to advantage be emulated by other concert managements,

Almost entirely unsung, not only this year, but going back decades, are the St John Ambulance volunteers who front up for duty night after night at major concert venues around the town in case there’s a call on their first aid skills.

The Terrace Proms, the brainchild of emeritus professor David Tunley, a music fest that brings St George’s Terrace alive and jumping on one Sunday each year, was imperilled in 2003. The continued existence of this admirable initiative depends on an injection of capital. Are any white knights on the way?

Musica Viva, like many other concert-giving organisations, is concerned about a greying audience with dismayingly fewer younger people taking up the slack. In an admirable and resourceful way, Music Viva, the world’s biggest chamber music entrepreneur, reached out to younger folk through its Menage series this year, mounting high-level performances in venues patronised by young people – taverns, gay bars and the like. Whether this will have a positive medium- to long-term result, remains to be seen.

Similarly concerned, the WASO will also be making a pitch for young adults through its WASO Lounge series that’s aimed at patrons up to 36 years of age – and the orchestra’s Early Childhood program aimed at kids from the ages of two to six years continued to be of pivotal importance as have been the performances the WASO provided for primary and secondary school children.

The W.A.Opera Copmpany’s production of Cavalleria Rusticana was its most impressive effort during 2003. Superb sets with voices to match made this a memorable event. And reassuring evidence of substantial youthful potential was on show at the Australian Opera Studio’s admirable production of Die Fledermaus.

Over time, there has often been cause for complaint about the quality – or lack of it – of electronic amplification of high-profile, out-of-doors concerts. But at Jose Carreras’ performance in Supreme Court Gardens, the standard of amplification was superb, the best I can recall in twenty years. It’s a shame, though, that the star of the evening left something to be desired. It was left to a supporting act – soprano Rachelle Durkin – to take out top vocal honours.

There was more good news on the amplification front at the Octagon Theatre where an excellent sound system has been installed.

An increasing trend towards informality in concert giving, a breaking down of barriers between onstage musicians and audiences was often apparent in 2003. Whereas a generation ago, it would have been unthinkable for male musicians to come onstage wearing anything other than white tie and tails (still a feature of WASO concerts), nowadays most musos opt for lounge suits or even more casual attire.

Perth’s first taste of Wagner’s Ring cycle was a fine concert version of Gotterdammerung with Susan Bullock magnificent as Brunnhilde and Philip Kang unforgettable as a dastardly Hagen.

Minimalism guru Steve Reich fronted up – in trademark baseball cap – at Mandurah Performing Arts Centre in a celebration of his work. And TaikOz was far and away the noisiest offering of the year.

A noticeable trend during 2003 was the increasingly high profile of the tango, as much locally as around the world. Sparked by the ubiquitous Astor Piazzolla’s seemingly endless essays in the genre, tangos were much in evidence in recitals around the town, notably at the Terrace Proms where Cathie Travers and friends mined Piazzolla’s repertoire for a selection of tango gems that charmed the ear. And at Roger Smalley’s 60th birthday concert, we heard Travers’ The Tower, a finely crafted essay in tango mode, presented by the Australian Piano Quartet.

During 2003, a pageant of astonishingly accomplished young musicians from abroad came to Perth, among them a parade of world class violinists who appeared as soloists with orchestras, among them pint-sized prodigy Pekka Kuusisto in short works of Sibelius with the Australian Chamber Orchestra – and, in recital, Julian Rachlin with pianist Itamar Golan were flawless in recital for Musica Viva. And Perth’s Jessica Ipkendanz rose to violinistic heights in ensemble with pianist Raymond Yong. An older musician, violinist Shlomo Mintz was magnificent in the Sibelius Concerto.

Young baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes is clearly on a fast track to the stars. So, too, is Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski, stunning in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 1 with the WASO which scaled the heights in response to Paul Mann’s visually flamboyant conducting of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

One of 2003’s odder offerings was an arrangement by Hans Zender of Schubert’s Winterreise with tenor Steve Davislim doing his best in ensemble with Zender’s extraordinarily fussy reworking of the piano part for small orchestra.

Two very different singers made their mark in 2003: Tim Freedom, of pop group The Whitlams, who seduced the ear with a stream of mellow sound and perfect diction in concert with the Australian Chamber Orchestra – and counter-tenor Andreas Scholl who reached for the stars in Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

© December 2003