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Steen Mencke "s.mencke dk" (Denmark)
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Bach: The French Suites
Bach: The French Suites
Price: £13.02

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Bach that even Bach would recognize, 3 Nov 2009
This review is from: Bach: The French Suites (Audio CD)
There are not that many recordings of these suites played on the harpsichord. Apart from this one, I have in my collection only the recording made in 1993 by Keith Jarrett, which, different as it indisputably is, is also fine and deeply felt. Christopher Hogwood is these days by far most renowned as a conductor. He, however, also plays the keyboard part on most of his recordings, and considering how well this is done I have often wondered why he never got around to making more recordings of the solo works of J. S. Bach, as well as why he left the harpsichord to Christophe Rousset on his renderings of the concertos from the late nineties. Still, I can't blame him for feeling a bit thinly spread with all the fine discs he has left us over the last thirty-odd years. Hogwoods insight into the artistic mind of the Baroque composer is simply second to none, and these French Suites, quite apart from being no doubt the ones closest in style and sound to how Bach would have wanted them, are fine and crisp examples of that particular kind of courtly elegance so popular in the 1720's. If one can appreciate the timbre of the slightly clangy harpsichord one needs look no further than to this set for a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

It is always dangerous to compare recordings of keyboard music played on old, original instruments (in this case harpsichords restored in the 1780's) with recordings made on a modern piano, no matter how much it may have been altered for the purpose - Gould's version of the suites being a case in point. When adding apples and oranges - as we were all taught in arithmetic not to do - one is likely to end up with strange and misleading results, and in the case of music this is fair to neither instrument nor artist. Consequently I have to say that I find the review of Mr. J. K. Carvell to be missing the point entirely. His objections to the Hogwood recording clearly have the ring of being more about not liking the sound of the harpsichord than finding faults with the interpretation of the music. It is like saying that you prefer skiing to rice pudding (which is anyone's privilege, of course), and as such I can only recommend that if you prefer the sound of a Steinway Grand Piano you probably shouldn't go and buy a harpsichord, as you are likely to be massively disappointed doing so. That Gould's recording (one of five versions in my collection using a modern piano) is fine and extremely personal is not in dispute, but I doubt Bach would have liked it, and it is to the n'th degree apples to Hogwood's oranges.

I would probably under normal circumstances have rated the Hogwood recording a four, but to remedy what I consider a disgraceful rating of two (and a bit out of sheer bloody-mindedness, I suppose) I will rate it a full five. Nobody laying down the relatively few quids to acquire it - and who knows the sound of Hogwood's historic Bach recordings - is likely to complain anyway.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 3, 2013 10:35 AM BST


Mozart: Piano Concertos 21 & 24
Mozart: Piano Concertos 21 & 24
Price: £7.30

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mozart at his - close to - best, 25 Oct 2009
The standard of technical excellence among professional pianists these days is so uniformally high that it is becoming increasingly difficult to pinpoint the occasional genius. Over the last couple of years Piotr Anderszewski has by some been proclaimed as one, and finding myself disappointed with his Carnegie Hall recital, which for reasons I can't altogether define left me completely cold, I turned my gaze towards his Mozart, which fortunately turned out to be a very different experience.

There can be no disputing that Mr. Anderszewski is a pianist of extraordinary talent, and nowhere is this more obviously apparent than in these two celebrated concertos. A crystalline lightness of touch reminiscent of Murray Perahia (concerto No. 21) somehow blends with a searching introspection (concerto No. 24) that causes Sir Clifford Curzon - on a good day - to leap to mind. Every detail is "done and seen to be done", as the old saying about justice goes, and nowhere does Anderszewski - in charge of the orchestra as well - leave the music sounding either jammy or overly intellectualised. Having recently had the dubious pleasure of reviewing the C major concerto in recordings by Stefan Vladar (and Christian Zacharias before that) I can only emphasize that Andante, in this case at least, really does mean "walking slowly", and for this one Anderszewski conjures up the exact proper dreamy quality, while at the same time making the C minor concerto sound grave and brave - like something, in fact, that might have inspired Beethoven to write his concerto in the same key, which it did. This, combined with a recording that is at the same time warm, spacious, and scrupulously detailed, makes this disc a must for all who love the Mozart concertos - and deep down, who doesn't.

My co-reviewer "b-n-weasel" voices some concerns regarding the rather romantic quality of the interpretations, which is not entirely unwarranted. However, in my opinion at least, Anderszewski - unlike some of his illustrious predecessors (Horowitz and Michelangeli, to name but two) - brings it off sounding neither contrived nor anachronistic. And let's face it: if any of Mozart's concertos should be able to incorporate a bit of romantic heart-on-sleeve, these two (and No. 20) are first rate candidates.

Anderszewski's disc of the concertos Nos. 17 and 20 (Virgin 0946 344696 2 3) is warmly recommended as well.


The Copenhagen Ring: Det Kongelige Teater (Schonwandt) [DVD] [2008]
The Copenhagen Ring: Det Kongelige Teater (Schonwandt) [DVD] [2008]
Dvd ~ Various Artists
Price: £38.99

22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars ... and the occasional "spasm of cramp"., 14 July 2009
A Dane myself one could say that I am almost contractually obligated to love this Ring, but though I can't for a moment deny that this production has been a cultural exertion of a magnitude so far unheard of in this small country - and one crowned with considerable success - I still have serious reservations about a great many things when it comes to its conceptual scope.

Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" is without a doubt the most spectacular and demanding, longest and most complex work ever written for the stage. In fact, when it was first performed in Bayreuth in 1876, the composer was indeed the first to remark that he doubted anybody would ever be able to stage it in a fashion that would render it justice the way it was originally conceived. Since that time a good many have tried ... and some rather more successfully than others. The first production I took in was the so called "Centenary Ring" staged in Bayreuth in 1976 by the French film director Patrice Chéreau, and as such his version, with its tense drama, brutality, and naturalistic depiction of violence, will always be something of a reference to me. Unfamiliar as I then was with the traditional ways of staging this work, I found the use of costumes and set pieces from the age of industrialisation during the last half of the nineteenth century quite fitting (after all, that is when the operas were composed), and the rantings and howls of "sacrilege" trumpeted by the traditional Wagner fans left me utterly unmoved. As such I should feel great sympathy for Kasper Bech Holten, the producer of this Copenhagen version, who in conversation with our Queen (second disc of "Die Walküre") claims intending his staging for those whose minds are "not tied by traditional views of the operas". I frankly wonder if an audience that liberal can be found at all these days, but mostly the remark to me certainly raises the greater question: won't these poor, unspoiled opera-goers be terminally confused when almost nothing in the sets or the action corresponds with what is sung anymore?

It was, I think, agreed early on that the lack of dwarves and (especially) giants who could sing the various parts left producers certain liberties of interpretation, and with the Boulez/Chéreau Ring (Bayreuth 1976-1981) the much loved (but often ridiculed) tradition of using viking-inspired horns and hairdos was laid to rest once and for all. This production, however, retained the props (ring, weaponry, etc.) mentioned constantly in the text - and to great and dramatic effect. The action still took place in some mythical age and thus made the use of medieval pictures and phrases somewhat plausible, but when you specifically set the action in the twentieth century (in the Copenhagen case from the 1920s to the 1990s) you unavoidably run into a s..tstorm of trouble coming up with explanations for all those annoying anachronistic tools, such as helmets, spears and swords, that you can't exclude just because they don't fit the new general concept. Holten is not the first to wrestle with these problems, but I am sorry to say that he has had no more luck than most other present-day directors coming up with consistent solutions. A man brandishing a sword in the middle of a cluster of uniformed sociopaths armed with automatic rifles is inherently silly (and to boot wide open to the old joke about bringing a knife to a gunfight!), and I seriously doubt there is - or ever will be - much anybody can do about that. On top of this I always wince when I hear the word "hammer" and see a pump-gun, or the word "armour" and see wings with black feathers on them. Also many of Holten's personal touches and original ideas - a white dove being let loose before somebody goes into a coma, or sleeping people (being continually refered to as "sleeping") walking about the stage wide awake - seem to me contrived pastices that fall on barren ground in my mind. Likewise, the decision to leave the sword-pulling in "Die Walküre" to Sieglinde is one of those seemingly modernist and anti-sexist gestures that by its very superfluity (not to mention going completely against the narrative of the entire opera up to that point) falls pancake flat on its face. In me such pretentiousness only provokes a kind of embarrassed titter; it represents what I tend to call "artistic cramp", i.e. a neurotically irrepressable urge to do something in a new way, though it is in fact totally unnecessary and, to make things worse, in all likelihood less satisfactory than the way things have been done so far. I know I'm probably fighting windmills here, but looking ahead I all but expect to see the first act of "Siegfried" set in a nunnery - with Mime in drag - and, unstopable evolution or not, that is leaving artistic license open to justified ridicule. When taking in this production for the first time I was sorely tempted to use the old phrase often quoted in the entertainment industry: there was much good and much new in the play ... only the good wasn't new and the new wasn't good - but, in all fairness, that is not altogether true. Some things do work, and some actually work very well; only a pity so much else goes down in flames most horribly ... given the end of "Götterdämmerung", no pun intended.

Now, you could say: this does not sound like a review that ends in four stars, and normally you'd be absolutely right, but this "Ring" has one colossal upside to it. It is on the whole - and I write this with utter conviction - dramatically as well as vocally one of the best "Ring"-versions in existence on DVD and CD alike. There literally (and MOST unusually for a big Wagner-production) isn't a bad performance within eye- or earshot! Some like Sten Byriel (Alberich), Christian Christiansen (Fafner), and Stig Fogh Andersen (Siegmund/Siegfried) are merely doing quite OK, but others like Iréne Theorin (Brünhilde), Randi Stene (Fricka), Stephen Milling (Fasolt/Hunding), and Guido Paevatalu (Gunther) excel and have not been seen or heard better for decades. And shining incandescently over them all is the magnificent true-barytone Wotan of James Johnson, defying belief in combining the gut-wrenching dramatic intensity of Sir Donald McIntyre with the vocal splendour and faultless German diction of Sir John Tomlinson. His performance in the third act of "Die Walküre" in particular is second to none, and leaves him on a par with masters like Hotter and Adam. Only the Hagen of Peter Klaveness presents a voice slightly too weak for the job; he makes up for his vocal deficiencies by his first rate acting, though. The orchestra, very professionally led by Michael Schønwandt, lacks a bit of the edge a Levine might have produced, but it in no way detracts from the overall emotional punch, which is considerable.

Wagner used to say that for his operas he prefered actors who couldn't sing to singers who couldn't act; I sometimes wonder if he ever met anybody who in his opinion mastered both. Anyway, he would have truely loved this cast!
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 9, 2010 8:28 PM GMT


Rachmaninov: 24 Preludes
Rachmaninov: 24 Preludes
Price: £14.06

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ready to rumble?, 13 Jun 2009
It is always good to see a new addition to the catalogue when it comes to the complete preludes of Rachmaninov. At present I know of only about 10 versions released on CD, and some of the composer's greatest interpreters - such as Sviatoslav Richter and Earl Wild - never got around to recording all 24. After a characteristically beautiful recording by Dame Moura Lympany and the efforts of Peter Katin and Howard Shelley (both very decent performances, sans plus), Steven Osborne seems the perfect choice for a further anglophone to have a go at it, and I must say I was not for a moment disappointed.

Osborne's playing is less crystalline than that of some pianists of his generation - and Rachmaninov himself, if one cares to lend an ear to his outstanding piano roll recordings released some 10 years ago on Telarc - but when it comes to catching the mood of longing (for mother Russia and many other things) that is at the center of Rachmaninov and the worldly elegance always present beneath the occasional ferocity, Osborne succeeds like very few I have encountered over the years. I have heard others manage a bit more desperation in the chilling B minor prelude (let Demidenko take you there!) and a slightly more electric tingle in the famous G sharp minor do., but overall Osborne's view is remarkably consistent and it steers him clear of the occasional paroxysms of bad taste often found in other performances - especially in the C sharp minor and G minor preludes. It also leaves him free to make the 24th prelude in G flat major the crowning achievement it rightly should be, and Osborne's marvellous rendering of this piece is in itself worth the price of the disc. In my music collection only the live recording (and rare as diamonds THEY are!) made by Marietta Petkova in 2002 reaches the level of involvement I find in Osborne, and for all the praise I have for Petkova he is arguably the finer pianist.

Why only four stars then, you might ask. Well, Hyperion always had a tendency to go a bit heavy on the sound (lots of bass, little treble), and in some of their otherwise fine recordings it is bordering on the annoying. In this case this is not as prominent as it sometimes is, but as compensation they have "expertly" managed a deep rumble (<160 Hz) that leaves me with the somewhat nostalgic - but not at all pleasant - feeling of being in the London Underground. Unless they made the recording there (and according to the booklet they didn't!) this has to warrant a little gentle kick up the backside: hire some recording engineers with the ability to register less than 300 and more than 2500 Hz, for crying out loud!. Sorry Steven Osborne, not your fault! Do keep up the good work.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 30, 2013 2:22 PM GMT


Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1 & 2 / Rondo in B flat
Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1 & 2 / Rondo in B flat
Price: £15.12

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Something fresh on the menu, 23 Jan 2009
I should probably start by stating that in spite of being a long standing connoisseur of Beethoven - the piano concertos in particular - the C major concerto has never been a favourite of mine. It is, in spite of the rather syrupy largo, strangely featherweight - not in the modern healthy sense of the word, though, more like lacking in substance. To me it always felt rather like a wedding speach: bright and rosy - but mostly made more from necessity than desire ... which, needless to say, is never the best of starting points when it comes to art. That said, this is a vivid and well played performance, conceptually somewhere in the neighbourhood of something the composer might have recognized ... which in itself is no mean feat.

The prize of this disc, though, is the concerto in B flat. Always a stepchild among the concertos (and on top of that fiercely difficult to perform well) it has had a thoroughly deserved comeback over the last 15 years, given their all by pianists like Zimerman, Schiff and more recently Kissin. Even the somewhat heavy-handed treatment offered by Barenboim during his live performance of all the concertos in Germany in 2007, shows it to be a more Haydn'esquely sincere and consistent (though earlier) work than the C major. In the hands of Boris Berezovsky the music sparkles and shines like the jewel it is, and especially the rondo - taken at the right speed (molto allegro) for once - will take your breath away. Thomas Dausgaard (my compatriot) handles the deliberately limited forces of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra with great agility, and both succeed in recreating an atmosphere that makes this familiar work feel at the same time authentically classicistic and amazingly fresh. The "original" rondo movement (WoO 6) tops up the disc, and makes for a most charming and interesting encounter. Warmly recommended.


Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony [Hybrid SACD]
Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony [Hybrid SACD]
Price: £16.98

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Après ce-ci le déluge, 5 Jan 2009
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I have to admit that I have not always seen eye to eye with this late lamented conductor. In many of his recordings of the foreign repertoire (and, for some strange reason, in his Elgar too) he often navigated the corners a bit too fast with insufficient regard for colour and expressivety (de mortuis nihil nisi bene ... and all that, I apologize); among his compatriots, though - Elgar sadly not included - he invariably swam like a fish, and with Vaughan Williams he arguably made his greatest kills. The universally commended recording of the second symphony was in more than one way one of a kind, and the outings into the world of the rarely heard stageworks always brought many a thrill. Having for years enjoyed Hickox's early disc of the "Sea Symphony" (1990, Virgin) I had high hopes for this issue, and much to everybody's praise I was not disappointed for a second during 4577 seconds of exquisite playing.

Every detail of an often awkward score is there presented in its best possible light, every shade of beauty and emotion drawn from Whitman's ebullient texts by an excellent singer duo, perhaps the best I have encountered since Roocroft/Hampson gave it their all for Sir Andrew Davis a decade and a half ago. The largo has an almost icy beauty to it that outdoes all competition, but, to me, the acid test for any recording of VW's first has to be the swell of the orchestra in the finale after the words: "O Thou transcendent"; if total inundation does not immediately follow I, for one, am not amused. Hickox builds up the climax to perfection, and though the live recording restricts the orchestra sound a bit the effect is still colossal, and, unlike the above mentioned Davis recording, Hickox's soloists are not mared by a strange boxed-in sound that is the probable result of them being recorded in a separate - and somewhat smaller - room from the orchestra. All in all, unlike some of my co-reviewers, I find the recorded sound to be very adequate, in places positively impressive - if a tad confined in the tuttis, and it certainly does not distract from the overall joy of a thoroughly inspired performance, right at the top of my list next to Boult and Sir Andrew Davis. Haitink's version, deeply felt though it indisputably is, is slightly too lumbering for my taste.
The ouverture to "The Wasps" is as witty and eloquent as the author of the play, and the interpretation only enforces the general impression of the greatest care and dedication. Enthusiastically recommended.

As usual for Chandos the SACD track sadly doesn't provide much extra depth or volume compared to the normal CD track. I don't know how BIS conjures up the marvels they have been producing lately ... but one could hope they would share the secret.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 19, 2012 9:38 PM BST


The Berlin Concert
The Berlin Concert
Price: £11.77

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Several ways to swing a ... Bach!, 20 Oct 2008
This review is from: The Berlin Concert (Audio CD)
I just wrote my review of Dinnerstein's Goldberg Variations last month, having all but worn out that disc over the year or so I have had it. I don't do a lot of reviewing, but though Dinnerstein these days most deservedly just seems to rake in the praise of newspapers and music magazines alike - her last scalp being September's Diapason d'Or, which isn't exactly a plate of p... - and as such shouldn't need my help, here we go again. The repression of urges is always a dangerous thing!

As noted by many before me, two words that immediately leap to mind when trying to describe Dinnerstein's playing style on this live recording from Berlin a year ago almost to the day, are meditation and jazz. If you are a fan of Gould's treatment of Bach - and who isn't to some degree? - it seems difficult to imagine the French Suites responding well to that approach, but: "think again" is all I can say. In Dinnerstein's sensitive yet miraculously nimble hands these seven charming dances drop their masks of carefree entertainment and put on their philosopher's hats instead, showing us the darkly smouldering Sarabande, the mischievous Gavotte and the quirky Loure in a new and interesting light. The Gigue is almost always done well, but here for the first time I all but seem to sense Scott Joplin impatiently waiting round the corner; no small achievement at that. I'm fairly certain that Bach never played his fifth suite like this - and he wouldn't have had the piano to do it either - but it certainly works for me and just goes to prove that there is indeed "several ways to swing a cat" (we don't skin them where I come from).

Though no small piece in itself the variations by Philip Lasser, wonderfully played with all the baroque gravitas and lightfooted jazziness you could wish for, become very much the tangy granité before the plat de resistance that is the 32nd sonata by Beethoven. Never an easy piece to bring off in public due to its combined technical difficulty and intellectual scope, Dinnerstein digs into the Allegro con brio with all the granite resolution of a Richter (Beethoven never pussyfoots!), and - though it isn't supposed to matter and consequently very much does - what a pleasure to hear not one miss in that legendary minefield of music. Artur Rubinstein used to joke about the ingratitude of audiences: "Why is it that if you play more than 30% wrong notes during a recital, some cantankerous individual always wants his money back?". No risk of that here! It takes a Bach interpreter of some standing to play the Arietta as it deserves to be played, but without a profound understanding of Beethoven-the-idealist and Beethoven-the-crank it just won't work. Fortunately, here as elsewhere, Dinnerstein can hold her own, and she delivers an epic journey that rivals Serkin (Rudolf!) and Pollini at their best.

The Goldberg encore, as good as it was on her previous disc and a fitting meditation to end the evening, concludes another 75 minutes of Dinnerstein magic ... and what can I say: acquiring this disc is money well spent, even if you don't really have it to spend. May the wait for Dinnerstein's next issue - on disc *smile* - be mercifully short.


J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations BWV 988
J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Price: £14.64

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best of the old and the new come together - at last, 9 Sep 2008
Simone Dinnerstein's disc of the Goldberg Variations is currently the 12th addition to my "accumulation" on CD of that work, ranging from cembalo versions by such distinguished performers as Koopman, Hantai, Leonhardt and Jarrett to piano versions by Perahia, Feltsman and Hewitt. As 13 is supposed to be an unlucky number it may be the last - for a while, at least - and as such I have to say: what a way to end that particular part of my Bach collection!

Dinnerstein's interpretation is at the same time technically flawless and - what is more - emotionally all-encompassing to a degree I can scarcely remember having encountered before in more than 25 years as an aficionado of classical music. It will be a cold and snowy day in Hell before I give up my disc of Gould's 1982 recording, but while that interpretation sets a standard of its own I always felt a slightly more romantic aproach to this timeless piece still might do wonders; and how happy I am to at last find the pianist to provide the perfect balanced example. In many reviews Dinnerstein's playing is primarily compared to Perahia, whom - as a Mozart performer par excelence - I percieve as more of a classicist (i.e. light-footed, elegant). To my ear there is a clearer line to Dinnerstein's late great compatriot Rosalyn Tureck (1913-2003), who in her best live performances achieved an unequalled meditative quality in the slower variations. Like Tureck Dinnerstein also prefers to play all of the repetitions, and while this practice makes the variations a very long piece indeed, it will work wonders when you succeed in somehow turning every repeat into an elaboration, as is the case with this recording. Though the Aria da Capo is technically supposed to be played more or less exactly like the opening Aria, this way of doing things always leaves me unsatisfied (shame on you András Schiff!). Something should have - must have - happened after all the bloody battles of these 80 tumultuous minutes of music. Gould provides a very beautiful answer to this problem, but his transfigured, weary-of-life Aria da Capo allows for no interpretation but that this is unquestionably the end (maybe of all things), whereas Dinnerstein miraculously manages to make her solemn conclusion sound like a possible new beginning. To think that this cataclysmic work is still believed by some to have been composed as a lullaby for an insomniac count! Fiddlesticks, Mr. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, as Montgomery Burns would have said - and do stop rotating in your heaven J. S. Bach.

I could drone on praising the merits of this outstanding recording, but fortunately others have already said most of what so richly deserves to be said. While I may not want to take my argument to the extreme of claiming this the only recording of this - the ultimate keyboard work of all times - you will ever need to hear, it certainly ticks more boxes on the score card than almost any other recording it has been my pleasure/duty to peruse. The levels of introspection and athmospheric tension just simply defy belief! Put this CD in your player and take in the 5 minutes 40 seconds of the first Aria; if you are not hooked by then you have the least corruptible personality in existence. Run for Pope!


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