Monthly Archives: August 2013



Wagner: The Ring

Peter Bassett (speaker): Vienna Philharmonic: Sir Georg Solti

DECCA 480 7311: 4CD: TPT: 257’28”

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Wagner’s incomparable set of music dramas, known collectively as The Ring of the Nibelungs, has been around for a long time. It entered the operatic mainstream years ago. Yet, it is still far too often the case that even seasoned concert- or opera-goers  feel intimidated by it. They will happily listen to extracts – Ride of the Valkyries, say, or Siegfried’s Funeral March – but they will shy away from experiencing the work in its entirety.  When asked, timid opera goers will mumble about inordinate length, paucity of memorable melody and its being ‘too difficult’ or ‘too heavy’.RingExplorations_Cover


Yet, more often than not, those who avoid, or condemn, The Ring have never attended a performance of one or all of the cycle.  They mumble clichés: The Ring is too complicated, they say, too dreary, depressing, without catchy, memorable melodies and inextricably associated with notions of overweight sopranos who do nothing but stand on one spot and sing too loudly and at great length. They will sometimes say they are put off The Ring because Hitler liked it so there has to be something wrong with it.


Nonsense? Certainly. But how to persuade and convert the doubters not only to dip a toe into but top jump in? How to tempt them to experience this masterpiece in toto?


DECCA has responded to this challenge in the most practical and effective way.


So, timid, vacillating listeners, fear not. Operatic salvation is at hand.


And DECCA has the solution to the problem. And if this 4-CD set doesn’t manage to transform listeners into passionate and loyal followers of The Ring, I don’t know what will.


Our heroes are two gentlemen steeped in Wagnerian tradition. One is very well known – Sir Georg Solti – the other, Peter Bassett, less so but as crucial to leading the nervous novice across Wagner’s formidable operatic landscape.


Bassett’s great gift, apart from his encyclopaedic knowledge of The Ring, is his ability to make the seemingly complex approachable, to explain in the most straightforward and appealing way what the Ring story is all about. This is just the thing – and not only for those who are intimidated. Even the most enthusiastic and informed of Ring followers will find fascinating facts, perhaps even revelations – on this operatic journey of discovery in the company of Bassett, Solti, singers (some legendary) and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.



Wagner: The Ring: Highlights


Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: Herbert von Karajan: vocal soloists

DG 480 6977: 2CD TPT: 153’55”


Hans Knappertsbusch conducts Wagner: selections

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra: Hans Knappertsbusch

DECCA 480 7093: 2CD: TPT: 154’28”


reviewed by Neville Cohn


Beethoven wasn’t above double dealing by selling the same composition to more than one publisher, Gesualdo was a double murderer, Mascagni was an enthusiastic fascist –  and Lully ruthlessly trashed the reputations of others as he clawed his way to eminence at the French royal court. But for sheer awfulness, Wagner was in a class of his own.


A serial adulterer, incorrigibly vain, an embezzler, an anarchist, an instinctive ingrate and anti-Semite, he was also a genius. And in this 200th anniversary year of his birth, there are celebrations worldwide to mark this milestone. And in a series of releases in Universal Music’s Eloquence series, Cyrus Meher-Homji has once again done CD enthusiasts proud by pulling a series of splendid musical rabbits out of his hat. One cannot too highly praise these initiatives whereby top ranking recordings, most often originally available on LP, are reissued on CD at competitive prices. They constitute a cornucopia of Wagnerian delights.


For those who prefer to listen to The Ring in small doses as opposed to experiencing the work in full, they could hardly do better than a quite superb 2-CD pack – DGG 480 6977 – featuring von Karajan presiding over singers and the Berlin Philharmonic.4806977_WagnerRingHlts_Cover

Originally recorded in 1968 and 1970, it makes for frankly riveting listening. More often than not, sound quality is exceptional. Throughout, Karajan, as ever  loyal to the printed note, does wonders in eliciting some of the most sheerly satisfying performances from a bevy of Wagnerian stars that one might ever hope to encounter.


Bouquets aplenty to the sound engineers who have done wonders in capturing the Berlin Philharmonic sound. If you purchase no other recordings this year, you will have done yourself proud to have these performances in your record library. Not the least of its many pleasures, is the often exceptional clarity of diction.


Hans Knappertsbusch – known to colleagues simply as Kna – didn’t get on well with that lifelong Wagner fan Adolph Hitler. The latter detested Knappertsbusch’s conducting style and avoided his performances. The loss was his for Knappertsbusch, when on form, did wonders on the podium and he has left a substantial recorded music legacy.  He famously disliked lengthy rehearsals, preferring a minimum of  preparation. Instead, he endeavoured always to obtain a sense of spontaneity from his players, a  risky attitude that occasionally resulted in embarrassment. But when his players were on their mettle, the result could be most rewarding – very!

PACKSHOT 4807093 KnaConductsWagner_Cover

None of these misfires are in this compilation of Wagner orchestral highlights from not only The Ring but also Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser, Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde.  Here are beautifully gauged, finely paced, unhurried, deeply meaniungful accounts of perennial favourites including Flight of the Valkyries and  Forest Murmurs from Siegfried – and the overture and Venusberg music from Tannhauser.

This recording, brimming with good things, is a joy.

From the house of Master Bohm



John O’Donnell (harpsichord)

MELBA  301143 TPT: 79’48”


Liszt Wagner Paraphrases

Asher Fisch (piano)

MELBA  301141 TPT: 67’07”


reviewed by Neville Cohn


How much we take photocopying machines for granted nowadays. But I’m old enough to  recall vividly as a child in the 1940s (when photocopiers were in their infancy and certainly not standard equipment in business offices),  painstakingly copying out piano pieces note for note from my teacher’s music books out of print or unavailable due to wartime restrictions. And if, say, in an insurance office, copies of  letters were needed, they had to be typed by an employee in the typing pool, a time- consuming occupation.


What has this, you’ll be wondering, to do with the music of Georg Bohm and the generous and welcome selection from his harpsichord output on a recent MELBA release? It seems that what little we have of Bohm’s music is largely, though not entirely, due to the efforts of the then-15-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach who  studied with Bohm at the time and, crucially, and painstakingly, made copies of some of his teacher’s compositions which he handed round to members of the larger Bach family. Without these, Bohm might, at best, have been little more than a footnote to music history.


And what a splendid performance we have courtesy of John O’Donnell, a musician whose playing has the unmistakable stamp of authority. Much of the performance on disc is informed by a quite captivating joie de vivre – and the extraordinary skilled presentation, with notes clothed in golden tone and informed by an authoritative confidence, makes this CD quite exceptional. Bravo!


This compilation is yet another instance of the imaginative resourcefulness that is a hallmark of the Melba label. As I have mentioned before a number of times – but it certainly warrants reiteration – there is much more to a Melba CD than the disc itself. Invariably, there are fascinating liner notes and a finely designed CD container. This is particularly so here.


Melba’s preparedness, music-wise, to embrace the novel, the forgotten and the challenging makes this label – small in relation to the international big names – a giant insofar as courage and enterprise are concerned. At every level, this product is a joy. The playing has the stamp of authority; it glows with golden tone and the stamp of authority. Highly recommended for anyone interested in baroque harpsichord playing at an august level.


Wagner was a man of many parts: embezzler, anti-Semite, anarchist, serial adulterer and a person of incorrigible vanity. He was also a genius. His cause has not been helped by being Hitler’s favourite composer. The vile leader of the Third Reich also possessed a number of Wagner’s original opera scores which he cherished.


Asher Fisch needs little introduction although his primary claim to fame is as conductor rather than pianist. He has also been at the forefront of events in presiding over the Wagner Ring cycle in Adelaide, the recordings of which deservedly garnered high praise internationally.


In the late nineteenth century, without radio or recordings, the chances of encountering ‘live’ performances of a Wagner opera were very few and limited to those in cities boasting an opera company. But, through the great skill of Liszt (among others), keyboard paraphrases of scenes and/or arias became very popular at recitals and soirees.


In recent months, a tsunami of CDs devoted to Wagner’s operas has almost overwhelmed the music scene. A few are disappointing and will sink without trace, some will keep afloat – and a significant few are riding the crest of the wave.


Fisch’s recording of Liszt/Wagner paraphrases certainly belongs to the last mentioned category. It’s fascinating fare Asher Fisch Liszt Wagner Paraphrases cover HIGH RESpresented with high musical intelligence and beautifully recorded. I especially admired the skill brought to bear on the Spinning Chorus from The Flying Dutchman, the whirring figurations beautifully managed – and the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhauser is no less meaningful. Its broadly paced measures and, where required, introspective moments as well as climactic episodes are the acme of refined taste. So, too, is Entry of the Guests; I’ve returned to Asch’s account of it a number of times – it’s a consummately fine offering.


Wagner wrote almost nothing for piano solo but here are three rarities, miniatures written as gifts for friends. They amount to very little. They are rather introspective little pieces with a faded charm which, without the magic of Wagner’s name attached to them, would long ago have disappeared into music history’s wastepaper basket.

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