Tag Archives: Th Anniversary

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.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1913)




Nova Ensemble dir. David Pye



Somerville Theatre, UWA campus

reviewed by Sophie Sax-Lehrman


Have there ever been so many people at one time on the campus of the University of Western Australia? Certainly, the citizens of Perth turned out en masse on Friday evening for LUMINOUSnight with literally tens of thousands swarming across the campus to savour the delights of a range of free entertainments to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the UWA. 

A capacity audience attended a screening at the open-air Somerville Cinema of Carl Laemmle’s silent movie version of  Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a tale that has inspired a host of moviemakers. 

Why this movie when there are so many others to screen? It was a clever choice as the film dates from 1913, the same year as UWA’s founding. And giving a 21st-century slant to it, we listened to a specially commissioned music score by two of Perth’s most committed exponents of new music – David Pye and Lee Buddle – performed by the Nova Ensemble. 

Here were the antique (the film) with the brand new (the music) – and how finely they meshed. Nova was very much on its collective toes with Pye presiding over events. All praise for the skill with which the instrumentalists co-ordinated with cinematic action. Time and again, there was splendid integration between on-screen action and the accompanying music which for the most part enhanced mood. This was fascinating fare; I savoured every moment, especially King Baggot’s portrayal of both Jekyll and his ghastly alter ego. 

Baggot’s  Mr Hyde is fascinating, his transformation startling, reducing his height to striking effect by hunkering down, then scuttling and lurching about like some monstrous, malformed spider. An almost flat black hat added to his bizarre appearance, in striking contrast to his portrayal of Jekyll as a compassionate and thoroughly decent doctor. 

Laemmle’s movie makes for disturbing viewing in quite another sense as one realises that the entire cast, including many children, and those behind the cameras, are long dead. But through the medium of cinema, they are all, in a way, brought back to life to once again reach out to a fascinated audience a century on. An exception was a cinema-goer nearby who with astonishing indifference to the annoyance he was causing many, had a loud and largely pointless conversation on his mobile phone.


This is a movie I’d very much like to see again. True, it shows signs of wear, the image occasionally scratched, blurred, stained or bubbled but in a curious sense this underscores its great age and makes viewing it all that more fascinating.

Sam Atlas gave a delightful introductory talk.

King Lear





Bell Shakespeare Company



His Majesty’s Theatre

reviewed by Neville Cohn




As is well known, the perfidy of King Lear’s ghastly daughters Goneril and Regan tips him over the edge into insanity after he abdicates and gives each one half of his kingdom – a very foolish move as becomes apparent later. And Cordelia, who loves Lear in the most genuine sense, is disinherited and meets a terrible end as well.


But there’s probably a case for supposing that Lear had begun to lose his grip on reality before disinheriting Cordelia and giving his kingdom to her appalling sisters. Consider this: is it a rational move to base so pivotal a decision as disposition of a kingdom entirely on the basis of an answer to this question: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most? “


Has Lear been deaf and blind up until that point? Has he over the years not formed a clear view how his daughters relate to him? Not to have done so suggests that there is something very wrong with the old man. And is his reaction to sweet Cordelia’s answer rational? No, it is the act of someone who is losing contact with reality. Dementia, perhaps?  


Nothing so clearly indicates the timeless and universal nature of the predicament Lear finds himself in than Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer prizewinning novel A Thousand Acres which is a modern take on the Lear story, set not in early Britain but a 20th-century farm in rural Iowa,  US A.. Smiley adds a further dimension – the protracted sexual abuse by the father which makes this an even more disturbing tale than the Lear original.


In this 20th anniversary production of  Bell Shakespeare Company, John Bell demonstrated the form that has made him a legend in Australian dramatic circles.

His bearing and diction brought the stamp of authority to every syllable uttered, to every gesture in the eponymous role. It was a model of its kind, the disintegration of Lear’s mind evoked to painful effect.


Lavish laurels to Jane Montgomery Griffiths as Goneril and Rachel Gordon as Regan each of whom comes across strongly as the essence of daughterly ingratitude.


Violence of both word and hand is here in abundance, not least in the hideously cruel blinding of Gloucester (played by Bruce Myles), an instant of horror in which a flash of searing white light and bloodcurdling scream as the horrible deed is done make for stunning theatre.


There are no weak links in the cast; each contributes something of worth to the overall production. I particularly admired the artistry of Peter Carroll as Fool. Step forward, sir, and take a well deserved bow for a first rate contribution. Peter Kowitz, too, as the Earl of Kent, did well.


As an ensemble, the company is impressive in conveying the cumulative power of the play in a way that calls to mind the words of former USA President Woodrow Wilson who, in a quite different context, spoke of  “experiencing history to flashes of lightning”.


As well, I cannot too highly praise the musicianship of Bree van Reyk, percussionist extraordinaire. Discreetly positioned to one side of the stage before a bank of percussion instruments, she employed artistry at a consistently high level with a range of sound effects that did much to enhance the impact of on-stage word and deed.


Nick Schliepers’s discreet lighting design strikingly complements Marion Potts’ direction.

Piano Grande!

Government House Ballroom

reviewed by Neville Cohn

If you have not previously heard of Bo An Lu, make a note of the name. If his account of the first movement of Tchaikowsky’s Piano Concerto in B flat minor is anything to go by, this sixteen-year-old is on a fast track to the stars.

Seemingly unruffled by one of music’s greatest challenges – and a TEE exam the following day – Bo An employed fearless fingers to hurl massive blocks of sound, Zeus-like, into the auditorium. By any standards, this was a remarkable achievement not least for expounding Tchaikowsky’s musical argument in so lucid, mature and heroic a way. Mark Coughlan provided excellent backing on a second piano.

Fazioli  pianos are few and far between in Perth – and to have two of these magnificent and very costly concert grands temporarily under a single roof would have been a first for the city. And nine fine musicians fronted up to put these instruments to the test with both players and pianos emerging with honour enhanced. This was a piano extravaganza to cherish.

A gem of the afternoon was Romance by Rachmaninov. A particularly tricky logistic challenge for three musicians and six hands at a single keyboard, it was an admirably expressive offering by Graeme Gilling, Emily Green-Armytage and Lyn Garland.

Very much noisier Rachmaninov – his Suite No 2 for two pianos – was essayed by Green-Armytage and Adam Pinto who generated very high decibel levels for which the Ballroom was really too small a venue. The Concert Hall would have been preferable for this.

There was also some delightful insouciance in the form of  Poulenc’s L’embarquement pour Cythere which came across courtesy of Garland and Coughlan.

Also at this concert marking Zenith Music’s 40th anniversary, was the quite remarkably poised seven-year old Shuan Lee who, with his father Yoon Sen Lee, gave us an arrangement for two pianos of themes from Yellow River Concerto and Homeland.

Gilling and Coughlan also played, most sensitively, Percy Grainger’s Blithe Bells – a re-working of Bach’s serene Sheep May Safely Graze – and were joined by Garland and Pinto in Smetana’s Rondo in C, frankly charmless music that sounded a simulation of peasants engaged in a heavy-footed, bucolic dance. There was also music by Mozart in the form of a movement from a sonata for two pianos played by Kathy Chow, another gifted 16-year-old, and Yoon Sen Lee.

At this memorable offering by of some the city’s most accomplished pianists, the crowded audience included many of Perth’s leading piano teachers.

Barry Palmer, whose speech had the inestimable advantage of brevity, paid tribute to the Cranfield family who have made so singular a contribution to the music life of the city.

Sydney Opera House Opening Ceremony


Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Birgit Nilsson (soprano)

Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor)

ABC Classics 476 6440 plus bonus DVD of highlights

TPT: 74’00”

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Mackerras Opera House

Mackerras Opera House

Wagner: Overture: The Mastersingers of  Nuremberg; Tannhauser: Elizabeth’s Greeting; Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod; Gotterdammerung: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey; Siegfried’s Funeral Music; Brunnhilde’s Immolation


Here’s a souvenir for those who collect Opera House memorabilia: a recording of the opening concert in what was rapidly to become an international arts icon. I dare say that the cultural cringe was alive and well at the time in that the soloist for the occasion was a singer from abroad. This is not to suggest that Birgit Nilsson was unequal to the occasion. Quite to the contrary, with her formidable voice blasting an effortless way through the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at full bore, there would have been few who would question her musical credentials. .


It triggers a childhood memory of listening to a radio broadcast of the Johannesburg Festival overture premiered in that city in 1956 to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the gold-rich city. At the time, there were more than a few South African composers who would have been up to the challenge but – no! – it HAD to be someone important from beyond the borders of South Africa. So, at a gala concert to open a South African festival, the audience included just about every South African composer but the commissioned work was by British composer William Walton.


Perhaps the same thinking informed the decision to feature a Swedish diva with, I dare say, the cultural cringers convinced, as in South Africa of the 1950s,  that ”if she’s imported, she’s bound to be better”. How, I wonder would Joan Sutherland have fared in Nilsson’s place? It’s a pretty safe bet, I believe, that she would have brought the house down bearing in mind that by 1973 she was at the height of her powers.


None of this should be considered a vote of no confidence in the Swedish soprano’s abilities. She is at her superb best in Wagner’s Liebestod, effortlessly riding the crest of the accompanying orchestral wave. And in Elizabeth’s Dich, teure Halle from Tannhauser, she is at the top of her formidable form as  Wagnerian diva par excellence.


Siegfried’s Rhine Journey makes for mostly impressive listening with Mackerras  coaxing a uniform tonal sheen from the strings to which the brass and woodwind choirs respond with commendable  unanimity of attack. Much the same could be said of Siegfried’s Funeral Music with lower strings at their eloquent best. In fairness, though, this SSO performance should not be taken as indicative of the orchestra’s present form which, in an overall sense, is most significantly more polished than in the 1970s.


A bonus, black & white DVD of these events makes for a fascinating souvenir.