Latest CD reviews


LISZT & THALBERG: Marc-André Hamelin ★★★★★

Aren't opera transcriptions passé nowadays with the originals available on disc, download and video? Hear Hamelin play Liszt's Reminiscences de Norma and one is disabused of such a naive notion. Liszt captures the essence of Bellini's three-hour Druidic drama in just over seventeen minutes: themes, arias (the divine Casta Diva) and duets are not spatchcocked together but seamlessly integrated. Seven minutes of furious F minor of Verdi's tragedy Ernani is just as effective. Hamelin's playing is phenomenal – dexterity, clarity and nuance everything one could desire. If fantasies on Rossini's Moses in Egypt and Donizetti's Don Pasquale – by Sigismond Thalberg – can't match his rival Liszt's for imagination they are still very enjoyable. Liszt declared Hexaméron "a monster": a bizarre set of seven variations on the march from Bellini's I Puritani by Thalberg, Pixis, Hertz, Czerny and Chopin, top-and-tailed by Liszt. Bonkers hokum – but Hamelin almost convinces you its top class. Stunning!

Norman Stinchcombe

BRAHMS: Wiener Symphoniker / Philippe Jordan ★★★

These live recordings come from Vienna's Musikverein, where Brahms' second and third symphonies were premiered. Jordan, the orchestra's outgoing chief conductor, takes a broad and leisurely view. Repeats are observed and we have ample time to enjoy many felicitous musical details. Brahms thus becomes, like Thomas Hardy in his poem "Afterwards", "a man who used to notice such things" – and so do we. The playing has warmth and a glow, embellished with some delightful wind playing. So far so good. Nothing in this set, however, really stirs the soul, raises the hair on one's neck or increases the pulse rate. Not the first symphony's doom-laden timpani-driven opening (slightly muffled) nor its rousing climax; the second's Adagio non troppo leaves one dry-eyed; and the fourth's gradually accumulating tension, and bleakly muted cataclysmic ending doesn't awe us. Bernstein – live, same venue with the Philharmonic – is even broader but what depths he revealed.

Norman Stinchcombe

CHRISTOU & THEODRAKIS: Cathariou / Samaltanos / Sirodeau ★★★

Mikis Theodorakis is indelibly linked to his catchy Greek folk-inflected music for the 1964 film Zorba the Greek. Theodorakis, now 95, is a political and cultural hero in Greece – jailed and his work banned by the '60's military junta – but also composed more than a thousand works. This album "Intersection 1955" pairs his music with that of Jani Christou, Egyptian-born of Greek heritage (1926-1970), all composed in that year. Just before switching to electronic music Christou composed Six T.S.Eliot Songs for mezzo-soprano (Angelica Cathariou) and piano (Nikolaos Samaltanos) with both performers powerfully expressing Christou's acerbic atonal style and vividly conveying Eliot's gnomic verses. They also perform Theodorakis's more melodic and romantic Les Èluard, setting of Paul Èluard's poetry. Samaltanos is joined by Christopher Sirodeau in Theodorakis's two-piano ballet score Erofili , music influenced by his teacher Olivier Messiaen, with flowing lines and often dense nature-inspired sonorities captured in vivid sound.

Norman Stinchcombe

HANNIBAL BLUE : Hannibal / Petri ★★★

This album of original compositions and arrangements by the Danish guitarist Lars Hannibal is a family affair. It's crossover with a touch of New Age easy listening. The majority of the pieces are for guitar and recorder, the latter played by the world-renowned Michala Petri (the former Mrs Hannibal) whose recording career has spanned more than forty years. Hannibal has an enjoyably crisp style on solo guitar tracks like Weyse's Quiet is the Night and I know a lark's nest – the latter a Carl Nielsen composition. Petri joins him in arrangements of eight Danish folk songs including Nielsen's Wond'rous air of evening. Petri's solo recorder playing on The Turk, a Hannibal composition, sounds as fresh and nimble as it did decades ago. Hannibal's quartet compositions like Autumn Rain and Springtime Sun, where he and Petri are joined by their twenty-something children Agnete (cello) and Amalie (vocals) are amiable but insubstantial.

Norman Stinchcombe

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