Monthly Archives: April 2006

Die Walkure (Wagner)

Die Walkure (Wagner)



The State Opera of South Australia
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
Asher Fisch (conductor)

MR 310191-94 TPT: 3:43:00

reviewed by Neville Cohn



He was incorrigibly vain, pathologically self-centered, a liar, a serial adulterer, an anti-semite, a cheat and opportunist, amoral and often on the run from the law. This thoroughly unpleasant man was also one of the 19th century’s most abundantly gifted figures.

Three hours and forty three minutes is a very considerable length of time to focus unremittingly – as critics ideally need to do – on a single opus. Over nearly four hours, it is all too easy for the attention to waver. But then, I can recall only too well that boredom – cosmic tedium, in fact – can set in in far shorter periods of time if performance standards are wanting in one way or another. And there are limitless temptations to sink into the arms of Morpheus during the unfolding of so vast an enterprise as Wagner’s Die Walkure unless the narrative pace is maintained. It is an absolutely crucial requirement.

Would Rossini’s gibe that Wagner’s operas had splendid moments but terrible half hours be justified in this recorded performance? The Ring, after all, unfolds extremely slowly. Would it wither embarrassingly on the vine?

How, I wondered, would I fare as I placed the first of four compact discs in the player and seated myself on the hardest, least comfortable, chair (to limit the possibility of nodding off if this was to prove a very extended exercise in dreariness)?

The short answer is that time flew – and as the hands moved round and round the clockface, not even its chimes on the hour succeeded in deflecting attention from the magic pouring from the speakers.

This recording is an exceptional achievement. It sets new and lofty standards for Wagnerian expression in Australia. It will surely become the performance by which all other Wagner offerings in Australia will be measured for some time to come – and justifiably so.

An impressive cast rises quite magnificently to the occasion. In fact, this vocal excellence is so uniform that it would be frankly invidious to single out individuals. Whether in leading or ancillary roles, there is total identification with the requirements of the parts – and not only in purely physical terms.

If ever a performance of Walkure pierced to the heart of the composer’s intentions, it is surely this. Here is an account that throbs with sincerity.

Truth is a word too casually bandied about, so much so that its currency has been largely debased. But in the sense of its definition as a faithful reproduction of an aesthetic endeavour, this recorded performance comes as close as makes no matter to being just that. And that is a signal achievement for a company far from the European epicentre of Wagnerian tradition. This, in fact, places Australia – and Adelaide in particular – very much on the Wagnerian map of the world.

In their uniformity of tonal sheen, the ASO strings should make every other orchestral string section in the land look to their laurels. They sound electrifyingly fine in the prelude to the opera with conductor Asher Fisch doing wonders in obtaining from his forces a remarkably effective, buoyant quality. And the ASO as a whole does wonders in Ride of the Valkyries – and how splendid, for once, to listen to The Ride not as a stand-alone concert offering but integrated, as Wagner meant it to be, into the work as a whole. This recording is the profound progeny of a happy marriage between Wagnerian scholarship and high inspiration.


Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn

Chopin: Mickhail Rudy (piano)

Chopin: Mickhail Rudy (piano)



Piano Sonata No 2 in B flat minor; 24 Preludes; Nocturnes Nos 8 and 13

EMI 343831-2 TPT: 1:15:43

reviewed by Neville Cohn



As is well known, Chopin described the movements of his Funeral March Sonata as four of his wildest children – and over the generations many have tried to tame them.

Latest of these is Russian pianist Mikhail Rudy. Inevitably, while listening to this timeless and powerful work, one thinks of it in relation to Cortot’s famous recording of it which, in its utterly unique way, sets the standard for all others to be judged by. And in this, Rudy’s performance stands up well to aural scrutiny.

It is clear in the first two movements that Rudy possesses the muscular forearms and fingers of steel needed to negotiate a way through some of the most horrendously difficult music ever conceived. In the opening, there is about the playing a nobility and hauteur that suit the writing well although, for this writer, the Cortot version which is a frankly ineffable blend of euphoria and a barely concealed underlying hysteria, still remains incomparable.

Rudy’s account of the Scherzo, the physical difficulty of which makes it a closed book to any but the favoured few, is impressive, not least the controlled manner with which those villainously awkward double octaves are despatched.

It is in the famous funeral march, though, that Rudy scales the heights with a reading that has about it a wonderful simplicity, never interposing himself between the music and the listener but allowing it to speak for itself. And although, for this critic, Cortot’s wizardry in the finale in conjuring up images of whirling phantom shapes is incomparably fine, Rudy’s fingers are second to few in their agility and accuracy.

Of the two nocturnes on offer, it is opus 27 no 2 in D flat that is highly recommended. It comes across as the quintessence of expressiveness, a little miracle to be cherished.

There are gems aplenty in Rudy’s account of the Preludes, opus 28. How does no 3 in G stand up to Rubinstein’s famous LP recording of the 1950s? Pretty well insofar as speed and accuracy are concerned, although tone is not as diamond bright as the old wizard’s version. Listen to Prelude no 5 in D; its notes are offered as a glittering cascade. And no 8 in F sharp minor is a joy to hear, its floodtide of notes given wondrous clarity at high speed; it’s an essay in euphoria. And the sheer drive and bravado with which repeated notes are despatched in no 12 in G sharp minor make this a miniature at which to marvel.

Prelude no 16 in B flat minor, that virtuosic Everest, is no man’s land for all bar those with an iron nerve, a cool head and fingers which know no fears. On all counts, Rudy comes up trumps. With his right hand blitzing through these terrifying measures as if they were some hohum finger study by Czerny – and his left hand accurately negotiating leaps that would make a mountain goat dizzy – Rudy emerges at its end with honour intact. And the lyricism and blitheness with which Rudy informs the following Prelude no 17 in A flat is a perfect foil for what had gone before.

Of the remaining Preludes, no 18 is magnificently peremptory, no 23 in F lingering in the memory for its aerial buoyancy – and no 24 brings the work to as passionately dramatic a close as one could hope for.

Neville Cohn Copyright 2006


Tuba Concertos

Tuba Concertos
Peter Whish-Wilson (tuba) and friends


Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
David Stanhope (conductor)

ABC Classics 476 525-1
TPT: 1:08:33

reviewed by Neville Cohn






For too many who ought to know better, the tuba is inextricably – and exclusively – linked with the celebrated Hoffnung concerts as well as innumerable Hollywood cartoons which poke (mostly gentle) fun at tubas as well as those playing them.

This splendid compact disc compilation should put the record straight; the tuba is as challenging to master as any other brass instrument – and when it is in the hands of a master – as is very much the case here – the results are extraordinarily satisfying.

Listening to Whish-Wilson calls Larry Adler to mind. He, too, did pioneer work on an instrument that few thought of in really serious terms. Listen to the tuba line in Vaughan Williams’ concerto. Whether in the march-like rhythms of the opening, revealing the lyrical essence of the slow movement or demonstrating extraordinary control of the instrument in quicksilver-rapid flourishes in the finale, Whish-Wilson is clearly master of the moment. Certainly, the buoyant, aerial quality that informs the solo line in the finale would surely persuade even the most anti-tuba types that there is far more to the instrument than the gag writers on comic shows would have us believe.

There’s more engaging listening in William Lovelock’s Concerto for Bass Tuba. Whish-Wilson’s artistry is particularly evident in the opening as he gives point and meaning to the whimsical, sunny essence of the writing, prattling away in delightful dialogue with the accompanying orchestra directed, as throughout, by a consistently accommodating Stanhope. And if the slower central section of the concerto is something of a dull patch, there’s seemingly effortless, sure-footed agility in the lively finale.

A compilation such as this, travelling as it does along musical byways seldom trodden by most listeners, would surely be a journey of discovery for many – and of a most charming kind to boot.

How many, for instance, would be familiar with Alec Wilder’s Tuba Suite No 1, subtitled Effie the Elephant? Originally conceived for tuba and piano, here it can be heard in a version for tuba, strings and harp arranged by Irving Rosenthal, one of music’s more versatile figures. Trained as a French horn player, he not only worked in symphony orchestras but also as a core member of the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Late in life, he came to Adelaide to
teach and, hearing Whish-Wilson playing the suite in its original state ie with piano, proposed the arrangement here recorded. This is the first time it has been available in this version on CD.

I particularly liked the second of the suite of six pieces: Effie Falls in Love, memorable for the tuba’s velvety mellow tone.

It is the finale of Michael Kenny’s Concerto for Tuba that lingers in the memory, not least for its infectiously jovial interior mood. And the nocturne-like third movement of Swedish composer Christer Danielsson’s Concertante Suite for tuba and four horns has a most beguiling, hushed quality.

Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn

The Classic 100 Opera

The Classic 100 Opera
“your 100 favourite opera moments as voted by listeners of ABC Classic FM”



ABC Classics 476 9524

8 CDs TPT: 9:00:00+

reviewed by Neville Cohn




Verdi’s Lament of the Hebrew Slaves in their Babylonian exile – which is far and away the best known chorus in the opera set in the time of the Biblical King Nebuchadnezzar – was bound to get a high placing in this collection of Australia’s most loved opera moments. In fact, Va, pensiero is placed second and kept from top spot only by In the Depths of the Temple from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.

The Classic 100 Opera moments as voted for by listeners to ABC Classic FM are contained in eight CDs which run for more than nine hours.

But, just as in ABC Classics’ Top 100 Piano Pieces, there is virtually nothing in the liner notes booklet about voting figures which, I’d imagine, would be of real interest to those who took the trouble to vote for their most loved opera extract.


How many listeners voted all up? How many voted for each of the pieces on disc? What were the demographics: did voters in, say, Tasmania indicate a greater interest in Verdi or Puccini than South Australian voters? How many listeners in the Northern Territory cast their votes in favour of Richard Strauss or Rossini? What were the figures for NSW?

John Crawford, program manager of ABC Classic FM, contributes a two-page article on the project which is printed in one of the two liner note booklets. But mystifyingly – and disappointingly – the identical article is also printed in the second of the two liner note booklets.


Why is this – especially when the space pointlessly taken up by the identical article in booklet No 2 could have been used to infinitely better advantage to throw light on the voting figures? This curious silence regarding the voters is precisely what happened when ABC Classics brought out its Classic 100 Piano Pieces compilation.

Of the 100 excerpts on disc, 57 are Australian recordings, most of them of splendid quality. W.A. musicians are very sparsely drawn on, though; the WASO features in four pieces, soprano Sara Macliver once.

On of the most memorable offerings, in fifth place, is a beautiful account of Dido’s Lament sung by mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell. Interestingly, this is the only piece out of the 100 which was specially commissioned for the set – and what a good idea it was, with Campbell unerringly revealing the poignant interior mood of the recitative and aria. She is accompanied in fine style by the Orchestra of the Antipodes conducted by Antony Walker.

A number of the choices raise intriguing questions. Wotan’s Farewell from Wagner’s The Valkyries – sung as if to the manner born by John Wagner – is placed 40th which means that in the ranking it has evidently greater public appeal than, for instance, Una furtiva lagrima (placed at 56TH), the Bell Song from Lakme (at 71) and the Toreador Song from Bizet’s Carmen which comes in, strangely, as low down the list as 75th, with the overture to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro listed 84th and that most ebullient of arias – Largo al factotutm from Rossini’s Barber of Seville – amazingly low on the list at 90th place. Also bordering on the incredible is the placing of The Birdcatcher’s Aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute near rockbottom in 98th place.

Unsurprisingly, Mozart comes top with 19 excerpts, Puccini at 13, Verdi 10 and Wagner on eight. Bizet gets four places. And Monteverdi, Gluck, Massenet, Godard (he of the exquisite Berceuse de Jocelyn), Lehar, Gershwin (Summertime), Mascagni and Catalani are each represented by one item.

Most of the performances are of stunning quality, with Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ Mozart offerings bound to propel him to the international fame his voice deserves. Barbara Bonney and Susan Graham with Eschenbach conducting the Vienna Philharmonic make magic of The Presentation of the Rose from Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. And Dame Joan Hammond’s account of Marietta’s Song from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt is genuinely touching. Jussi Bjorling’s Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci has lost none of its power to move. It’s placed 41st.

The sometimes strikingly unexpected rankings – which see Brunnhilde’s Immolation from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung twenty two places ahead of the Willow Song from Verdi’s Otello – would make the voting figures very interesting. So here’s hoping the powers that be reveal just how Australia voted for its favourite opera excerpts.

Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn

Nocturnes (Chopin)

Roger Woodward (piano)

Celestial Harmonies
TPT: 2:04:12 2-CD


  reviewed by Neville Cohn

As a teenager – and much to the annoyance of my parents – I played and endlessly replayed an LP of the complete Nocturnes of Chopin. The soloist was Arthur Rubinstein and the passionately extrovert manner of his interpretations made a huge impression on me. Certainly, those performances of long ago are still as vivid and meaningful for me as they were when I first encountered this keyboard treasure.

These interpretations established for me the standard by which all other performances of the Nocturnes were measured. But the other day, I came across no less lustrous musical gold: Roger Woodward’s account of the complete Nocturnes, a set that includes the two posthumously published Nocturnes – one in C sharp minor, the other in C minor – neither of which formed part of the Rubinstein recordings of the early 1950s to which I have referred here.

Woodward’s offerings are wonderfully considered interpretations. There is nothing remotely glib or cheap about the presentation which comes across with near-faultless taste and refinement of expression. Woodward’s performance has the inestimable advantage of recording engineers who clearly know exactly what they are doing; the end result is magical, piano tone right across the range as true and honest as one could ever hope it to be.

If you value the music of Chopin at the highest level, I urge you to obtain these wonderful recordings. Treasure them; they are a cornucopia of wonders, entirely justifying Rubinstein’s own comment that Woodward was one of the best Chopin interpreters he had ever encountered.

Listen to the first of the set – opus 9 no 1 – glowing toned, unhurried, bordering on the languid, and op 9 no 2, surely the most hackneyed of all the Nocturnes, music routinely massacred by earnest but wooden young piano players at eisteddfodau. Hear it, for once, shorn of honeyed sentimentality. And the third of the set, seldom encountered in live performance is rather too long for its material (in Rubinstein’s famous recording, a hefty segment of it is deleted). In Woodward’s hands, one can savour the ecstatic edge brought to its flying arabesques, its interior mood of turbulence finely revealed but always within the line and contour of Chopin’s idiosyncratic style.

The three nocturnes of opus 15 are given memorable treatment, too: the central section of the Nocturne in F is darkly dramatic, the outer sections essays in tenderness. I specially admired the second of the set – the F sharp minor Nocturne – not least for the refinement that informs the outer sections. And in the third of the set, Woodward captures its elusive essence like a moth in the gentlest of hands.

Other marvels are a profoundly expressive opus 27 no 2 – and the unhurried unfolding of opus 37 no 2 (its thirds are immaculately essayed). And Woodward transforms the great Nocturne in C minor from opus 48, its pizzicato-type bass chords and surging climaxes the stuff of high inspiration.

Highly recommended.

Neville Cohn Copyright 2006