Monthly Archives: March 2010

Transcendent Love – The Passions of Wagner and Strauss

Lis Gasteen, soprano

West Australian Symphony Orchestra

Simone Young, conductor

ABC Classics 476 6811

TPT: 73’41”

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Let it be said at once that soprano Lisa Gasteen is ideally suited to this repertoire. She has those qualities of heart and mind essential to essay works of this kind – and she has, crucially, the ability to effortlessly ride the crest of the accompanying orchestral wave no matter how substantial that might be. I especially admired the skill and expressiveness with which she sang Traume, the first of Wagner’s famous Wesendonck Lieder, with a gently pulsing accompaniment a fine counterpoint to the vocal line. At cycle’s end, incidentally, Traume is repeated, this time with the vocal line played with commendable sensitivity by violinist John Harding who, at the time, was concertmaster of the WASO. Gasteen is equally convincing in three of Richard Strauss’ lieder: Zueignung, Heimliche Aufforderung and Allerseelen. Stylewise, they are beyond criticism.

For this listener, however, the chief joy of this recording – and this is said with all due acknowledgement of Gasteen’s formidable artistry – is the quality of string playing of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. In this sense, the most rewarding offering of the compilation is a splendidly presented Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

Here, the strings are in particularly memorable fettle, producing a uniformity of tonal sheen that lifts the performance to a special category of excellence. Here, as throughout, Simone Young presides over events with wondrous skill as she coaxes her forces to ever more meaningful effect, not least in finely sustained phrase lines. This is yet another demonstration of Young’s quite extraordinary ability to take her forces to levels which, in the ordinary course of events, the players themselves might have considered unattainable.

This was such persuasive playing that,  if the  shade of Wagner himself had hovered over the  proceedings, it might well have nodded its approval of both Young and the WASO. There is also a thoroughly worthwhile performance of Strauss’ Metamorphosen.

Jail Birds

Voices from Inside

Jonathon Welch, director

ABC Classics 476 3689

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Knowing the circumstances under which this recording was made, it is very difficult to listen to it without being moved. Here is a ‘good news’ story about a choral director with a vision and the determination to make it a reality.

All the singers in this ensemble are convicted criminals who are – or have been – serving sentences. Welch has done wonders with his choristers, not all of whom would have been trained musicians.

There are precedents for this ie in relation to obtaining vocal excellence from singers who might be musically illiterate eg the Eoan Group Opera Company in Cape Town. Through the vision and staying power of Joseph Manca, so called “coloured’ folk, who by virtue of their skin colour were declared non-white (an odious term of the apartheid government then in power) and so barred from entry to the city’s fine opera house, had their day in the sun.

Manca, with a near-saintly dedication to the job (for which he never drew a salary of any kind)  taught each vocal part parrot fashion – in the original Italian – and the results, after scores of piano rehearsals, were astonishingly professional. I can testify to the success of this initiative as I was the piano repetiteur as a very young man. The end result, drawing capacity audiences and adulatory reviews, was extraordinary and the most eloquent of rebuffs to the apartheid czars. In the most moving sense, this was a triumph over adversity.

Much the same could be said of this recording, another instance of a leader with vision and determination – and the whole-hearted co-operation of the singers proving the sceptics wrong. Performances like this don’t fall from the sky. The project would have been a non-starter without the determination and staying power of all concerned, including a co-operative officialdom.

These tracks are impressive; they deserve to be heard by the widest possible audience. It’s a thoroughly commendable offering. Listen to it; it’s heartwarming stuff – and for all the right reasons.

A percentage of royalties from the sale of this recording goes to the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.

Cello Diva – Bed of Roses

Sally Maer, cello

Sinfonia Australis

William Motzing, conductor

ABC  476 6291

TPT: 56’ 51”

reviewed by Neville Cohn

This is ideal material to relax to after a tough day at the office. It’s a charm laden compilation that provides unpretentious, laid back interpretations of music from Bach to the present day.

Unruffled calm informs an account of the Sinfonia (Arioso) from Bach’s Cantata BWV156. Deft, delightful pizzicato makes a gem of the Cantilena from Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No 5. Britney Spears’ Everytime is gently lulling material.

Genevieve Lang: step forward and take a well deserved bow for splendid harp playing in O mio babbino caro from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi in an arrangement by Lang and Maer. And in Motzing’s arrangement of Jon Bon Jovi’s Bed of Roses, the backing has a most agreeable yearning, lilting quality. There’s more delight in Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga from Rinaldo, informed, as the playing is, by a mood of restrained melancholy.

Recorded sound is uniformly fine. And there are eye-catching illustrations as well as an eminently readable essay on the soloist by Martin Buzacott.

Sally Mae spent some time in the cello section of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra as well as playing part time in the cello sections of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra – and she enjoys busking.

Southern Star

Choir of Trinity College, University of Melbourne

Michael Leighton Jones, director

Marshall McGuire, harp

ABC Classics 476 6349

TPT: 63’ 11”

reviewed by Neville Cohn

The gem of this compilation is Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. The finesse that informs every moment of this exquisite work makes this one of the most satisfying recordings of the work I can recall. It’s a compendium of musical marvels. Whether in evoking the ecstatic interior mood of As Dew in Aprille, the emphatically stated This Little Babe or the rippling note streams that Marshall McGuire coaxes from his harp, this is a performance to cherish.

Britten’s delightful work is often performed, yet there’s nothing here that sounds dull or routine. On the contrary, it comes across with a newly minted freshness which is quite delightful.

McGuire is no less persuasive in Christopher Willcock’s Southern Star. The texts of this song cycle are by cartoonist extraordinaire Michael Leunig. The Trinity College choristers are in fine fettle here, sombre in the introductory Love is Born, intense and ecstatic in Christmas and, in Gul Gul Dja Mardji, the presentation is informed by an emphatically atavistic quality. I liked the bustle which informs What did you get? (a rather delightful piece about Xmas presents) – and in Real and Right and True, McGuire again comes up trumps.

William Kirkpatrick’s Away in a Manger was a joy and Andrew Carter’s Mary’s Magnificat is beautifully essayed.

A thoroughly recommend compilation.

Life and Fate (Vassily Grossman & Lev Dodin)

Maly Drama Theatre – Theatre of Europe – St Petersburg

His Majesty’s Theatre

reviewed by Neville Cohn

This is definitely not for those whose idea of going to the theatre is experiencing a few hours of genial mummery. Life and Fate occupies a very different world. It is a tale of physical and emotional violence, much of it state-sanctioned and so unnerving as to leave the viewer limp. It’s a tale that brands itself indelibly on the consciousness.

But for those who like their theatre pieces to have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, Life and Fate might well be problematical, even bewildering. It could be thought of as a montage, a series of mainly brief episodes that occur during Wold War II in the cities and gulags of Russia and the death camps of the Nazis.

Like some malevolent serpent slithering through this often brutally confronting production is an ever-present anti-Semitism whether of the German variety (with its sights set on the complete extermination of European Jewry courtesy of the appalling Wannsee declaration which the Nazis were pleased to call The Final Solution) or the Russian version where an irrational, centuries-lomg hatred of the Jews seems an ingrained feature of the national psyche and all the more virulent for becoming state policy.

Periodically and improbably, we hear the strains of Schubert’s Standchen (known throughout the English-speaking world as Serenade). It reminded one that in some of the nazi’s concentration camps, an orchestra of inmates would be ordered to play this or that music as victims of the nazis’ were marched to the gas chambers. Can there have been a more cynical and evil exploitation of music than this?

An all-purpose set is an ingenious construction: a handball net also serves as a concentration camp or gulag fence, there’s a miscellany of cupboards, a battered, tinny piano, beds and chairs. Ingenious lighting does much to heighten mood.

There are no weak links in the cast which is superbly disciplined. For the many who do not understand Russian, there were first rate surtitles flashed onto a lengthy narrow screen above the action.

Tatiana Shestakova is admirable as Ana Shtrum, the family matriarch, diminutive,  soft spoken medical doctor who tends to other ghetto Jews before she is gassed and cremated in one of Germany’s nazi death camps, an ever-present spectre.

Nearly all the conversations focus on the war and fleeting moments of tenderness throw the encompassing horrors into even bolder relief so much so that at interval, one left the auditorium with a near-palpable sense of relief.

Life and Fate tells of a Russian nuclear scientist Victor Shtrum (Sergey Kuryshev) who happens to be Jewish – and this places him in a vulnerable, even dangerous, position. But because of Stalin’s desperate need to build an A-bomb, there is breathtaking cynicism on his part in bringing Shtrum out of exile to work on the project.

Again and again, the craziness of the Soviet system is underlined, memorably by a high official rejecting Albert Einstein’s theories as unacceptable because they conflict with Lenin’s world view!! Nothing so demonstrates the ethical bankruptcy and the mind-numbing, blind acceptance of what is palpable, sheer nonsense.

Precisely how many died, how many murdered, in the name of such idiocy, will probably never be exactly known. Productions such as this are crucial to keeping the memory of the slaughtered millions alive.