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Thomas Neal (England)

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Beethoven Orchester Bonn
Beethoven Orchester Bonn
Price: £15.08

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars simply stunning, 12 Jun. 2008
For such a famous and well-recorded symphony, to identify the best recording is by no means an easy task - there are so many very fine accounts by the Cologne Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic etc...and yet we have this stunning account from a rather unlikely source - the Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn, directed by Roman Kofman. I do not claim that every recording in their complete Shostakovich is of equal standing, but there is some extraordinary playing here.

The Penguin Guide in particular seems to love this recording, describing it as "sweeping the board". Apart from the complete and utter precision and accuracy, what really drew me to this recording was the sense of intense passion and drive without turning into the tragic cliché of the composer's sad existence. The Penguin guide describes this as "a satisfying combination of passion and irony..."

This recording was made using a hybrid multi-channel system, and therefore to gain full benefit from this recording one should possess a good-quality SACD player. However, even on a modest two-speaker system the orchestra's drive and power are easily felt - in particular, the brass benefit from such superb recording quality.

The presentation and programme notes are excellent, providing full biographies of the conductor and orchestra, and a brilliant, if brief, history of the symphony itself.

Overall, I recording without compare and an absolute joy to listen to - you will never hear Shostakovich played as well as it is here.

Saint-SaŽns: Violin Concerto No. 3; Introduction and Rondo capriccioso; Caprice andalous; Morceau de concert
Saint-SaŽns: Violin Concerto No. 3; Introduction and Rondo capriccioso; Caprice andalous; Morceau de concert
Offered by Naxos Direct UK
Price: £5.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a great discovery, 6 Jun. 2008
As the previous reviewer mentioned, this disc is almost worth buying purely for experiencing the craft of the recording engineer, Otto Nopp, who has created a masterpiece of recording. Perfect balance is achieved between the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and the soloist, Dong-Suk Kang, whose tone is constantly clear and bright without becoming tiresome. His tuning is impeccable, and he applies exactly the right vibrato for each passage. The precision and attention to detail of both the soloist and conductor, Antoni Wit, simply cannot be questioned.

Generally speaking, the works themselves are very similar in style and delivery, yet each has its own mark. The concerto in particular almost reminded me of Pagannini's, but with a great deal more intimacy, and indeed a greater dialogue between orchestra and soloists - in particular, there are some wonderful woodwind solos in these works. Furthermore, Saint-Saens is not guilty of turning his music into shallow and meaningless showmanship, which Pagannini has often been accused of; here, Saint-Saens contrasts the virtuosic draw-droppers with some of the most intensely beautiful passages in the repertoire - take the openings of the "Introduction and Rondo capriccioso" op.28 and the "Romance in C major" op.48 - both offer a supreme craftsmanship, and are sure to scatter any doubts over the composer favouring technicality over beauty.

The programme notes and presentation are everything we might expect from the Naxos label - clear, concise, and well thought-out. Overall, a great discovery.

Handel: Messiah
Handel: Messiah
Price: £8.40

44 of 48 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars vigorously dramatic, and a typical recording, but not clear, 1 Jun. 2008
This review is from: Handel: Messiah (Audio CD)
In the same way that Naxos' New College Oxford recording of "Messiah" is an example of the English Cathedral tradition, this recording is a great sample of the choral society tradition. Although the recording includes some huge names from the world of classical music, I was not over-enthralled by the recording as a whole. The age of the recording (1966) is made obvious in the quality of sound, and the entire ensemble is too big to hear the words properly, and of course this is reflected in the acoustic. The presentation is acceptable, but the sleeve notes are inadequate and the text is not provided. However, what this recording does have is drama and vigour in abundance.

The chorus sing very accurately (particularly the tenors), with good intonation and, for a choral society, with relatively clear diction. The orchestra are accurate enough, but tend to go for the loud "wow" factor, instead of focussing on the more intimate details of the score. Such huge choral and orchestral forces do not allow for sufficient clarity in parts, particularly in the lower registers.

However, the greatest fault with this recording is the soloists. The opening tenor solo "Comfort ye" is attacked by John Wakefield, with an inappropriately dominating vibrato. The Soprano, Heather Harper, simply belts out "I know that my redeemer liveth", particularly in the higher register, with a style more akin to Puccini than Handel. Helen Watts gives an assured and heart-felt performance of "But who may abide", and she has a real strength in her lower register, but, again, the style is too grand and operatic for the subtle details and intricate workings of the score. Perhaps the best soloist is John Shirley-Quirk, who generally gives a more appropriately restrained performance, but without losing the rich sonority of his voice, or the rhythmic vitality in the famous "shakes".

In many ways whichever Messiah recording one buys rests on what one is looking for. If you would like to hear a performance in the true choral society tradition - like one might hear every year in Huddersfield - then look no further, as this is the finest recording in that tradition. But if you would prefer a recording in the Cathedral tradition, look for Naxos' New College Oxford recording - a superbly accurate and precise recording with the Academy of Ancient Music, outstanding soloists, perfect acoustic, and a truly authentic Baroque performance (note, however, that this recording varies slightly from the score we know so well, as it is the composer's 1751 edition, although I found it to be even more enjoyable!)

Elgar: Child of Dreams
Elgar: Child of Dreams
by Jerrold Northrop Moore
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a gem of British musicology, 12 May 2008
This review is from: Elgar: Child of Dreams (Paperback)
To claim that Elgar's music is inextricably linked to the Malverns Hills and the surrounding countryside is by no means new nor revolutionary - indeed it has become a cliché to make such comments - but what does this really mean? For the first time, this claim is studied in some detail by a renowned Elgar expert and the result is two-hundred pages of carefully-researched, detailed, and mature reflection on this subject.

Moore has explored most (if not all) of the major works, with a particular focus on "The Dream of Gerontius" and the Symphonies. The content is a mixture of brief biographical comments and analysis of the chosen works (which are in great detail, considering the size of the book). In particular, Moore brings out Elgar's intensely personal nature and his disturbing psychological issues - there is a real sense of tragedy, and at times reads more like a novel.

Without wishing to ruin the book for those about to purchase it (and you must!), Moore's "big theory" is that Elgar's greatest melodies all derive from the same characteristics (such as a pattern of falling fifths) and that this idea is present in a small sketch he made as a boy (called the "tune from Broadheath"). Some readers may find claims such as this a little far-fetched, but Moore is a convincing writer and, whilst he does not dictate a single view on the composer, has certainly chosen and presented his evidence in a certain light, and I found his writing both reliable and persuasive.

This small tome has provided a completely fresh and invigorating study of a composer who has been greatly misunderstood, not least by myself. This book pauses for thought and invites a reassessment of the man and his music, which I think is what the author intended. In this, it is a hugely successful book and should be read by anyone with a vague interest in Elgar's work, although it would certainly help if the reader was at least literate in musical notation, as Moore provides a number of extracts which are integral to the study as a whole.

A must-read for the Elgar fan and the British musician - a perfect example of brief, intelligent, and inspired musicology.

For those looking for a book with more biographical content, try Nicolas Kenyon's "Elgar: an anniversary portrait", although the present volume would satisfy most musicians.

Complete Symphonies, The (Abbado)
Complete Symphonies, The (Abbado)

5.0 out of 5 stars Tchaikovsky at his most profound, 11 May 2008
Despite the budget price and the dubious presentation, this complete cycle of the Tchaikovsky symphonies is a very credible addition to the vast canon of recordings already in existence. As one would expect from such eminent musicians, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are on top form, and have a clear, close working relationship with the conductor, Claudio Abbado.

This recording has everything that a Tchaikovsky specialist might look for. Rather than taking one interpretation or viewpoint on the composer's style (which so many "complete symphonies" recordings do), Abbado has approached each work from a unique perspective. This allows us to hear the naivety of the first Symphony ("Winter Dreams"), the rustic folk-like feel of the second ("Little Russian"), the maturity and confidence of the fourth and fifth, and the over-powering pain and despair of the sixth ("Pathétique"). In particular, I found the first and sixth symphonies to be performed extremely well - the latter being no easy task for any orchestra.

What makes this recording stand out from others is that is possesses raw passion, almost painful emotion, and an unbelievable atmosphere (quite unusual for me, I was moved to tears as I heard the opening flute passages of the first symphony, whilst reading an account of the composer's slow and painful death). To complete the experience, listeners should read David Brown's superb books on Tchaikovsky - either the complete four-volume biography, the new shorter edition, or the scholarly "Remembering Tchaikovsky" which is a collection of letters, articles, and memoirs from the composer and his closest friends.

As I mentioned above, the presentation is poor and inappropriate, the recording is at a suspicious budget price, and the programme notes good but incomplete as they provide only a brief overview of the complete set. Further to this, no information is given about the recording sessions, the conductor, or orchestra. Another disadvantage of this recording is that the fourth symphony has been split onto two discs (there are four in total), although this has allowed the sixth symphony to stand alone on the fourth disc, which is a very wise move, owing to its unique place in the symphonic repertoire.

Overall, this recording is one for both scholarship and enjoyment, and, despite its faults, I give it great value amongst my Tchaikovsky CDs.

Rachmaninov: Liturgy of St John Chrysostom
Rachmaninov: Liturgy of St John Chrysostom
Offered by KELINDO≥
Price: £17.94

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a poor relation to the vespers? i think not..., 4 Mar. 2008
Sadly, this work is almost always viewed as the poor relation to Rachmaninov's glorious Vespers. Perhaps this is true in some respects, as the composer has had less input into writing the whole work, as almost every other movement is traditional Orthodox chant. This may put some off buying this disc, but I felt this simply put the music in context, and added an extra element not always included in discs of Russian Orthodox music. However, the music Rachmaninov did contribute to this liturgy is of the highest standards with some glorious, soaring melodies, thick choral textures, and then quiet, meditative prayers. The finest movements of this work are certainly of equal quality and beauty of those in the Vespers.

As with their Vespers disc (which must be the finest recording, beating all Russian choirs, and definitely a better recording than the Corydon singers), King's College oozes perfection from every angle. Once again, the bass line is superb - deep, rich, sonorous, and strong - everything one expects in a work such as this. The tenors and trebles are of the usual standards we have come to expect from Kings' College, and the counter-tenors provide a truly fabulous line without forcing the tone nor being too harsh, which a lot of counter-tenors in the Anglican tradition might be accused of. The soloist roles of Cantor and Deacon are superbly executed by Orthodox clergy with truly superb voices, providing that raw contrast to the well-formed soaring melodies. Similarly, the sound quality is second-to-none from EMI, and the whole presentation of the CD and accompanying booklet (which provides the usual information, including complete texts and translations) is excellent.

Overall, a truly superb recording of a work that deserves to be better known.

Musical Memories (Illustrated Edition) (Dodo Press)
Musical Memories (Illustrated Edition) (Dodo Press)
by Camille Saint-SaŽns
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars fascinating reading, 3 Mar. 2008
This book is a short but fascinating insight into the mind of French composer Charles Camille Saint-Saens, made famous for his third "organ" symphony, Danse Macabre, Carnival of the Animals etc...

Although I was expecting a collection of formal, autobiographical memoirs (like those of Berlioz), in fact this is merely a collection of the composer's opinions, tastes, and memories, fascinating though they are. In order, the chapters are on childhood memories, the conservatoire, Victor Hugo, the opera-comiqué, Louis Gallet, origins of opera plots, the purpose of art, science & art, "anarchy in music", the organ, Haydn, Liszt, Berlioz's Requiem, Pauline Viardot, Ophee, Delsarte, Seghers, Rossini, Massenet, Meyerbeer, Offenbach, the English Victorian Royal family, and (rather strangely) a selection of memories of painters owning violins.

The quality of content is varied - sometimes absolutely fascinating and sometimes dry, irrelevant, and uninteresting. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the organ and Meyerbeer. However, the standard of writing is consistently of a high standard, reflecting the writer's natural intelligence, although I do think the text has probably lost something in translation (there are also a few linguistic inaccuracies and some unusual wording in places, probably due to the translator). Each chapter is illustrated with a photograph of its subject, and the overall presentation of the book is of a very high standard from the Dodo Press (who specialise in publishing rare and out-of-print books). I would have liked a forward or introduction from the publisher/editor outlining how the texts came to be written, their historical significance, etc., but this was, sadly, non-existent.

For those interested in Parisian life and society after Berlioz, particularly surrounding musicians and artisans (although there is content to interest everyone) this is a must-read, but this is NOT Saint-Saens' attempt at an autobiography. I enjoyed reading it, but probably won't take it off the shelf again for another few years.

Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait
Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait
by Nicholas Kenyon
Edition: Hardcover

21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars essential reading for the British musicologist, 29 Feb. 2008
This wonderful book was published to coincide with Elgar's anniversary in 2007. It consists of a variety of essays and articles by leading musicians on specific topics, e.g. Stephen Hough writes about Elgar's faith, Yehudi Menuhin writes about the Violin Concerto. There are also contributions from Janet Baker, Jaqueline Dupre, and Mark Elder, amongst others. As might be seen from this list of distinguished Elgar-lovers, this book is essential reading for any serious Elgar fan, British composers, and the aspiring musicologist. Although I would imagine anyone with an interest in Elgar would enjoy some of the more biographical chapters (of which there are only a few), I think the book is aimed primarily for the musically educated and those with a serious interest in approaching the subject from an analytical point of view, as I was - from this point of view, the book is superb and is unique in providing such wonderful insight into the composer and his music from such a distinguished group of musicians. I bought this book because I wanted to discover the great man's music in more detail, and, as a musician and aspiring music historian, I found this book an invaluable source and introduction to the composer's world - essential reading for the British musicologist.

The Inner Game of Music
The Inner Game of Music
by W. Timothy Gallwey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars sound advice, 28 Feb. 2008
This book contains some sound advice on improving performance skills and improving stage-fright. This book is not intended to improve every technique on every instrument, but rather it looks into how we approach technique. Some advice the author gives is fairly common sense material, but he does come up with some fascinating and dare I say revolutionary ideas. Green addresses various common problems musicians have, explores them, includes his personal experiences, and looks at how the problem might be addressed, with corresponding exercises and ways of implementing his solutions. Whilst reading it and up until about 2 months after finishing this book, I would say it altered my approach to playing the piano and even of conducting, but after that the magic ceased to exist. Those readers who seriously want to pursue the author's advice should have boundless patience, which is probably where I failed. Still, an interesting and helpful read.

The Piano Shop On The Left Bank: The Hidden World of a Paris Atelier
The Piano Shop On The Left Bank: The Hidden World of a Paris Atelier
by Thaddeus Carhart
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars enchanting and inspiring, 26 Feb. 2008
This is a wonderfully well-crafted, enchanting, and inspiring book. True, it is aimed at pianists of all ages and abilities, although other musicians may find it interesting, and indeed even some non-musicians may enjoy the read. As well as being quite a factual book (including names and characteristics of many instruments), this book provides a truly enchanting picture of the left bank in Paris. This book fills a gap in the market and is essential reading for any pianist.

Cahart's style is flowing, easy-to-read, but never bland nor naive. He balances detailed knowledge with his passion for music, Paris, and the piano; carefully combined with wonderfully ethereal descriptions of his enchanting Parisian surroundings, the people around him, and his personal emotions. This is not an autobiography, as some reviewers have written - it is perhaps a short but very personal memoir.

This book nurtured my love of Paris, the piano, music, reading, and, indeed, life itself. An absolute joy.

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