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Bernard Michael O'Hanlon (Melbourne, Australia)

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Mozart: Quintets [Nobuko Imai, Stephen Hough, Martin Fröst] [BIS: BIS9046]
Mozart: Quintets [Nobuko Imai, Stephen Hough, Martin Fröst] [BIS: BIS9046]
Price: £28.80

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inside the Tube, 16 Sep 2014
Geez, there ain't too many duds here. Like so many monster-waves at Teahupo'o in Tahiti, it's one masterpiece after another: K 406, K 407, K 452, K 515, K 516, K 581, K 593 and K 614. Even K 174 commands interest. Yet again, one is left punch-drunk by so much perfection. How did he do it? What a ride!

The bulk of the heavy-lifting here is done by the Orlando Quartet - an accomplished outfit. For those who have Grumiaux branded on the brain like a Texan longhorn, it's a relief to hear the Quintets being apportioned evenly among the participants and not first violin-heavy like Haydn's Tost quartets (blame the engineers!). This is accomplished, unfussy music-making with the perfect blend of integration and allowance of individual voices (to wit, the violas in the slow movement of K 516). Much to the chagrin of the Period Practice Taliban "([is there no end to the] brassy bumptiousness of modern strings?", I can hear a clerical voice screech), the musicians in question play with a sybaritically fat-tone and blessedly so. Better still, they intrepidly fathom the depths just as much as they luxuriate in the sunlight of K 614. Tension is evident in their handiwork - after all, these are utterances which are greater than human grasp. The finale of the G Minor is taxing to interpreters and listeners alike: how well they hold it together to the point where one wonders what all the fuss is about. I adore the strong cello-line (particularly in K 515) - that's where it all starts. All great performances of chamber music nullify time. Like me, you'll be hard-pressed to account for your whereabouts for their duration. Quick, said the bird.

Allegiance to Grumiaux remains strong in the Quintets - perhaps from incumbency and sheer force of habit. Nevertheless, this is a viable alternative from any number of angles.

The ticket-to-ride continues with the performances of the Clarinet Quintet, Horn Quintet and Quintet for Piano and Woodwind (featuring Stephen Hough and principals from the Berlin Philharmonic). K 581 is not too sugary even if it strikes me as being Four Stars-ish. The other two performances go one better.

Recording-wise, there are no objections here. Few of us will ever surf Teahupo'o like "Red Bull Daredevil" Ian Walsh. Nevertheless this is a damned good approximation with as much danger and elation in train.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 16, 2014 8:22 PM BST

Schubert: Piano Sonatas
Schubert: Piano Sonatas
Price: £24.10

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars On the Sea of Shallows, 15 Sep 2014
This review is from: Schubert: Piano Sonatas (Audio CD)
I agree with Elpenor. As I hear it, this is a polished and professional sight-read by an old hand. Schubert's sonatas are less public utterances and more like pensées, personal revelations and keepsakes. Internalisation is all important in this domain. Here, it's in shorter supply than Rare Earths. Consider the development in the first movement of D 784, written at the time when Schubert contracted red spots on his undercarriage. It's one of most terrifying passages in music. Eventually we all behold the Paler Rider; this is Schubert's moment of terror, born of the realisation that he himself has catalysed doom, an event-horizon is at hand and there's no escape from the nothingness. It warrants a visceral response in the very least. Here, how comfortably Barenboim skirts the abyss. Indeed, it's remarkable that an artist of his reputation could so capitulate at this juncture - the French in 1940 put up more of a fight. It's not even a failure of nerve as that implies he's measuring himself against this demonic utterance. And what of the finale of the same sonata? Should it not be a remembrance of things past rather than a quirky rondo of sorts? I don't understand this. Moreover, these faults are characteristic of the wider set where blandness and faux-angst are regnant. Name the keystones - say the developments in the first movements of D 845 or D 960 or the self-contained episode in the finale of D 958: not once does Barenboim bet the house. One has to ask: does this music actually mean anything to him as a homo sapiens?

Compare this set with Kempff, Richter and the best of Brendel (say, the 1987 cycle) and it makes one wonder if Barenboim, lord of domains and master of none, has reached the limits of shunt. Could it be time for another New Year's Eve Concert in Vienna, aglitter with tinsel, bon-bons and streamers?
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 16, 2014 1:19 AM BST

Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 1-9
Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 1-9
Price: £21.79

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Anton Bruckner and the Art of Deflating a Tyre, 14 Sep 2014
My fellow reviewer SFL once compared Kurt Masur to a serial deflator of tyres. The image is indelible in my mind. Whenever I see some poor bugger on the side of the road, jack in hand, I automatically look for a craggy-looking gentleman in a trench-coat with that grimace on his face.

Masur's Bruckner cycle has been repackaged any number of times in a crowded market, all to no vivid end. If Sony thinks it can go one better than RCA/BMG by converting red ink into black, so be it,

Take away the baseline warmth and musicality of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and there's nothing distinctive whatsoever about this cycle. One climax sounds like another where no great intensity, vision or fearfulness is in play. Bruckner means different things to different people - no problems at all. For not few of us, it's a latter-day Divine Comedy where Hell, Purgatory and Paradise engulf the listener. What with his Goodyear-Bridgestone-Michelin fetish, Uncle Kurt defuses metaphysics from the mix and implacably so. Boredom ensues. As such, this testifies to the proposition that "ex nihilo nihil fit" ("Out of nothing comes nothing"). Even the default position - a Solti-ified Bruckner - is underplayed; as others have observed, Masur's reluctance to give full rein to the brass in symphonies such as Five and Eight is a mystery to say the least: this deflates Bruckner down to the rim. Elsewhere I have praised this performance of the Fourth. It still strikes me as being the best effort here. For once, the climaxes have resonance.

Uncle Kurt uses a range of editions. Does it matter? No.

This cycle is not sacred to the God of Small Things. If there's a deity in play, it's more likely to be the Gyrating Elvis on the dashboard of the tow-truck. Hubba bubba, baby!

Mozart: Oboe Quartet/Gran Par
Mozart: Oboe Quartet/Gran Par
Offered by Japan-Select
Price: £21.65

5.0 out of 5 stars Expectations Defied, 13 Sep 2014
Some things should not work in theory or practice. I recently saw footage of Elvis from a 1977 concert in Rapid City where, attired in his Mexican Sundial jumpsuit, he looks like death-reheated as he slurps down Coke and slurs his speech. Nevertheless, when push comes to shove, he belts out Unchained Melody - a masterpiece - like Adonis. Thus is the body dead but the spirit is life.

Mozart's Gran Partita is prismatic in its timbre. Accordingly, I never thought that a transcription could do it justice. Even so, it cannot be easy to assemble its array for a performance. Basset-horns, for instance, are not thick on the ground. This arrangement by Larry Schwencke - a notorious hell-raiser of his time - dates from 1805. It features a string trio, piano and oboe and a dodgy third Trio in the first Minuet that's about as Mozartian as a Death-Lover's All-Meat Pizza with egg in the middle (yes, it was found at Graceland on the night of August 16 1977). The thematic material is spread evenly between instruments. Much to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed this outing. This is robust, refined and insightful music-making which is difficult to fault and easy to enjoy. Where strings alone fail, (Gran Partita (Arrangement for Strin), additional instruments impart life and colour. The Fifth Variation of the Sixth Movement - always my touchstone in this masterpiece - is ravishingly played sotto voce: extremities are nigh. High spirits reign as they should in the finale. It's amazing how well this works! The Oboe Quartet is played just as memorably.

In the documentary "This is Elvis", the King & the Colonel (Parker, not Sanders) are invited to pick up their FREE bucket of chicken & chips from the Portland K.F.C. Unconfirmed reports tell us - and I believe them - that a Stutz Blackhawk III, being driven by a tubby guy in a jumpsuit, was spotted shortly thereafter at that gastronomic Versailles. In the same spirit, I commend this disc to you.

Mozart: The Last Three Symphonies (Nos. 39-41)
Mozart: The Last Three Symphonies (Nos. 39-41)
Price: £17.60

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Franz Bruggen / Mozart Festival CD 7, 12 Sep 2014
Of late, the ghost of Franz Bruggen has been bugging me. That's annoying enough. Worse still, he flaunts his full set of hair which has become even more plush in the afterlife. Harried and hapless, I consulted my mate JL, the Chief Procurement Officer of the Australian Knappertsbusch Association. "Do I need an exorcist?" I asked wearily. "Haven't I suffered enough? What does he want?" "Let's find out!" JL replied jovially and pulled out his Ouija board. Franz was a chatty bugger in life and remains so in death. This much we learnt: he was mightily annoyed at Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the Wild Man of Borneo. He was about to elaborate when the connection was lost. We spent the next few days in thought. Matters worsened as Franz took a lively interest in my saucepans and cutlery. At last, truth came to JL: FB was annoyed at the hullaballoo accorded to Harnoncourt's infamous "Instrumental Oratorium" Symphonies Nos 39 40 & 41 when his own recordings of the triptych had gone a'begging. It was time to offer redress.

Look, it's an unpropitious time to hear these dedicated, warm-hearted performances when I am still afire from Last Concert 1988 Mozart & Brahms which is the equivalent of a solar flare. The recording is excellent. As ever, Bruggen is no cold fish: there is a baseline warmth to these performances which makes them listenable and mitigates the minimal use of vibrato. Within its parameters, the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century plays lustrously, supported by a strong bass-line. Nor is it a Harnoncourt-ish Trial by Endless Repeats: wisdom prevails. Bruggen rightly spurns the Usain-Bolt-within by treating the opening Adagio of K 543 with respect and reverence. Sad to say, the slow movement of K 550 is prosaic (is this now par for course? Has our age lost its hardwire connection to this kerygma?); much the same could be said of its counterpart in the Jupiter.

Not one of these performances is the Word. Much to my relief, they're less mannered than Harnoncourt's recent atrocities (which ain't hard in itself). Will I return to them any time soon? Probably not. Nevertheless they have their place in the scheme of things. May peace be upon Franz Bruggen, his scalp so luxuriant and all members of the AKA far and wide.

Haydn - Symphony No. 45,Symphony No. 73 (CD)
Haydn - Symphony No. 45,Symphony No. 73 (CD)
Offered by sale-cd-dvd-store
Price: £9.68

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Goodbye Mister Chips, 10 Sep 2014
Haydn's Farewell Symphony is an extinction event, much like the K-T meteor or the Great Dying of the Permian-Triassic epoch. It's also a creation of economy, being positively chaste compared with the monsters that followed in its wake (hint: M_h_e_). As discussed at the latest meeting of the Australian Knappertsbusch Association, it's a disgrace that recordings of this masterpiece by major orchestras are rarities (for instance, the Berliners last recorded it in the Fifties; on the evidence of Haydn: Symphonies 88-92, Sinfonia Concertante, a revisitation should be deferred for the moment). Barenboim's recent tomfoolery with the Vienna Philharmonic (where thankfully in a way, only the finale is played) is degradation itself. Frankly, I'd rather ingest a Plutonium-239 milkshake than watch that offal again (New Year's Concert 2009).

This is my first encounter with the Leningrad Chamber Orchestra. It's a good-sized outfit. With Russian ensembles, it's Lucky Dip time: will it be exemplary musicianship or a stampede of elephants? Happily in this instance, it's the former. Not wrongly, the Period Practice Taliban will observe there's more horizontal flow than vertical punchiness to the music-making: so be it! Conductor Lazar Gosman observes every possible repeat in the Adagio of 45, blowing it out to an incredible 17'05" - and unlike Mackerras, he sustains it miraculously. Not once did he lose me - and indeed, it made me re-evaluate this movement per se to its betterment. And what a finale! What a finale!!! For once, someone dares to play its latter half as a genuine Adagio. Yes indeed, with the same powers of concentration, Gosman extends it to 9'39" (in way of contrast, Bruno Weil covers it 7'58" and Mackerras is two seconds less). This is mesmerizing torch-the-marrow stuff. Time's up. It's a vivid reminder of one's mortality and the transience of all things. We lose so much - what do we gain in return?

The performance of La Chasse is lively and stylish in a traditional sense. That being said, the decision to omit timpani is catastrophic. In terms of chutzpah, it cannot compete with Harnoncourt at his greatest (Symphonies 31, 59 & 73).

In another surprise, the analogue recordings from 1970 & 1971 are warmed and detailed. There are no problems on this front.

It's Five Stars for the Farewell and one less for La Chasse. Gun stuff! Aboard while you can!

Serenade / Gran Partita / Adagio
Serenade / Gran Partita / Adagio
Price: £25.11

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Grand Gran Partita, 9 Sep 2014
Could one suggest that the Gran Partita is Mozart's signature piece, comparable to Bach and his Mass in B Minor or the Ninth Symphony by you-know-who? It could not have composed by anyone else. Mozart is completely himself and answerable to no-one. Never have the sweet-spots of these instruments been so consummately exploited. What state of being does it not touch upon? Who is not afire with expectancy as it opens? It is one of life's great experiences.

Could one also suggest that K 361 is so inspirational as to be schlock-proof? I cannot readily think of a bad performance - can you? That being said, I have yet to hear Gran Partita Serenade; much to the glee of ravens afar, it has sunk ominously into oblivion like a stone into the sea - and who knows what the intonation is like on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Serenade in B flat major, K 361/ 370a "Gran Partita" - Amadeus Winds / Christopher Hogwood.

During the Eighties, the wind-players of the Berlin Philharmonic made a series of Mozart recordings for Orfeo. There's SERENADE KV375, KV388 / Blaser DER BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER by WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART [Korean Imported] (1998) and Divert K439b 2/4/Notturni/Mar and Mozart: Divertimenti for 8 & 10 Wind Instruments, KV 166 ,186 ,226, 227 and Mozart: Divertimenti for 6 Winds. Recorded in the Church of St Gilgen in the March of 1989, this is the last of them. Many of Karajan's old hands are participants (such as Leister, Hauptmann, Klier and Schellenberger). How would I characterise this performance? It's fresher than bread from the oven as if the guys are relishing their leave-pass from the Legion Vast. It's poetic. It's gutsy with plenty of balls. If it somewhat larger than life, so much the better. Fat textures predominate. The double-bassist is no shrinking violet, thereby adding to the fun. I'd like to spotlight individual wind-players but that's easier said than done: assuredly, they're all guns. One feels the need for a conductor but once - it's in the first movement at 3'25" where the phrasing is somewhat slurry-like (it's better in the exposition repeat). The recording has plenty of presence, warmth and detail.

To summarise, this is a belter of a performance. Not that it's needed, but it will confirm your vassalage to this mighty creation. To the best of my knowledge, the Berlin Phil has recorded K 361 on three other occasions (with Uncle Karl, Uncle Zubin and a recent self-conducted job on EMI). This is their equal in the very least. Better still, the so-called two fillers - K 411 and K. Anh. 94 (K 580a) - are anything but that. I don't know what they mean: they are - what else can one say? Played with the same degree of mastery and insight, they too testify to the visionary insight of Mozart, cosmic jester and shaman.

Offered by jim-exselecky
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars More Sugary than Syrup, 8 Sep 2014
This review is from: Mozart (Audio CD)
Each age seeks to recreate Mozart in its own image or an approximation thereof. There's nothing wrong with that. Nor do I have any issue with transcriptions; Mozart himself indulged in this practice (to wit, K270 & K 314). Nevertheless, when these phenomena consign Mozart to the front half of a concert as warm-up fodder for a pot-boiler, or serve as dinner-music at the court of St Anna of Wintour, it's a call-to-arms where the Hague Convention does not apply.

Inured to horrors though I be, I was flummoxed when I learnt of this abomination of desolation. Monsters exist - here's proof. How could anyone so bowdlerise K 459 - a work of profundity - and with a crappy harp of all things? Should it not come with a box of after-dinner mints too? To add insult to injury, Xavier de Maistre - a demi-god of metrosexuals - looks ever so photogenic and swish as he graces this production; is this not a terminus of sorts? Nothing of Mozart's weaponized beauty and the tension it so generates can survive such an onslaught: it's death by saccharine. The same treatment is meted out to K 545. Ingrid Haebler, in her November 1965 recording of this masterpiece, channels eternity at full fathom five and beyond. Here, it's averted with the stench of so much Chanel in the air.

I enjoyed the performance of the Flute and Harp Concerto even if it is somewhat pacey - I have heard more profound accounts of the slow movement (such as Mozart Flute Concerto KV 315 & Flute & Harp Concerto KV 299). As ever, Ivor Bolton elicits a stylish response from the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg.

Respect yourself. Respect Mozart.

Brahms Mozart Requiem
Brahms Mozart Requiem
Price: £6.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Fifth Stooge, 7 Sep 2014
This review is from: Brahms Mozart Requiem (Audio CD)
Wittgenstein tells us that we can only find words for that which is already dead in our hearts. It's a great saying. In theory, one should not be able to communicate lucidly after befalling, say, the Kyrie of K 427 or the finale of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony. If so, each review is an obituary of fire past.

This bon mot should be modified whenever one encounters a recording by Norrington: we can only find words for that which is already putrid in one's ears, astir in the guts and "explosive upon exit" from one's being.

This is what I wrote of Sir Roger's mutilation of K 626 - and a re-visitation (which resembled a Stations of the Cross) has done nothing to change my stance:

"As Don Quixote would say to Sancho, Scripture is unclear as to whether or not animals have souls. Dostoevsky claims there is a spark of God in every creature. I hope he is right. If so, their passing should be duly commemorated and Sir Woger of Norrington is just the man to do so. His stupendous performance of K 626 - a landmark recording - is a Requiem for the Dish-Lickers (as greyhounds are known colloquially here in Australia). It is zanily fast, metaphysically challenged, shoddily played and bereft of stature; other than that, there is much to cherish. And why scare off Malawi Prince, winner of the 1994 Warragul Cup, and his fellow woofers with a traditional performance?

Just the other day I was wondering to myself if the Masonic March, K 477, is the greatest thing that Mozart ever wrote. After all, it offers an unparalleled insight into that "undiscover'd country from whose bourne no traveller returns." I was duly punished for thinking these thoughts. Along came this recording in quick succession - and I mean quick. As if inspired by the dish-lickers himself, Woger sprints through it in 3'45" with a five second delay at the start. It is a magisterial lesson in how to trivialise and miniaturise a masterpiece. The Cantus Firmus is almost unrecognizable at 1'17"ff. In contrast, Kertesz in his classic recording takes 5'48". I almost reached for the flea-powder in response . . . . .

Recently I conveyed a meeting of the Australian Knappertsbusch Association by having a coffee with my mate JL (the latter also serves as the Chief Procurement Officer of this venerable institution). We had a general chat about stuff. He ventured the opinion that one of the reasons why period practice got off the ground in the first place is because there were so many musicians being churned out by various institutions and most of them were not good enough to get a gig with a regular orchestra so why not start up a band of scratchers like the London Classical Players (sic). I was taken aback by this suggestion but then I heard Sir Woger's performance - for the lack of a better word - of the Tuba Mirum. Reader, it's not the last word in orchestral polish . . . . . Indeed, here is an instance where Leopold Mozart's Toy Symphony collides with K 626 and the former prevails: the trombone sounds like a glorified kazoo; infelicities abound at 0'27" ff - amazing stuff - and the warbling of the B-grade soloists only adds to the torment of the listener. Such crudities beg the question: does Sir Woger have any sort of ear for music? When with the health authorities in the UK do something about those loose wires hanging out the back of his head? To Woger's credit, there is less clipped phrasing than what I anticipated. Duncan Druce's reworking of the Requiem is in use which modifies the end of the Lachrymosa by weaving in the Amen fragment which was discovered in the early Sixties. It is not without interest even if it is no substitute for the traditional Sussmayer text. The agony comes to an end with a performance of Ave Verum Corpus. Thankfully Woger has run out of puff at this stage as its tempo borders on the norm, mundane though it be. I would not be surprised to hear that all up, it cost EMI the princely sum of fifty bucks to make this recording with a packet of ciggies thrown in for Woger. Anyway, I played this performance to Oscar, our factory-fitted male Labrador. He yelped and elegiacally so. Make of it what you will - Woof."

Sir Roger's performance of Brahms' Requiem is no less shoddy and hollow of pith. In its own macabre way, it brings a stuffed trophy to mind: that of a deer which was transfixed in the headlights and suffered the usual fate. In a state of fear and loathing, one has to ask tremulously: what in the hell is that over-prominent brass instrument in "Die mit Tränen säen, werden mit Freuden ernten"? Is it a kazoo writ large? Has a rogue didgeridoo-player run amok? It's a mystery. In any event, it leavens proceedings with comedy - and surely that was Brahms' intent. Being emptier than interstellar space, "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" offers as much consolation to the bereaved as a dish of steamy Beef Vindaloo Surprise - where the surprise comes some two hours or so after ingestion. When one considers the distinguished orchestras that have tackled this work over time, one can only commiserate with the galley-slaves of the London Classical Players: welcome to Oil Drum Lane. There are some nice textures from the Schütz Choir of London and nothing more. Awash in a sea of nothingness, Lynne Dawson and Olaf Baer sink with the dinghy.

Bereft of distinction and metaphysically benumbing to the listener, these oddball performances are slapstick at best and a travesty at worst. For those who are fearful of the Way of All Flesh, here is respite - of sorts.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 15, 2014 7:22 AM BST

Violin Concerto, Fantasie op.131
Violin Concerto, Fantasie op.131
Price: £16.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars At Nightfall, the Poet speaks, 6 Sep 2014
Taken as a whole, the Schumann Violin Concerto, one of his last works, ain't a masterpiece. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating work.

The first movement, for instance, would have benefited from a revision (its orchestral tutti throughout is somewhat static) and the last movement is a touch wooden. Even so, it's blessed with a slow movement that is the equal of any in the genre, Beethoven & Brahms included - that's the plumb-line of its greatness. It yearningly recalls the happiness of the past without turning one into a pillar of salt. It's no wonder that when the timebomb went off in Schumann's head, the "angelic voices" were steeped in its melody. In itself, the entire concerto is a refutation of the hoary old view that Schumann became desiccated towards the end of the his life. For a "piano man", this is a stunning first attempt at a violin concerto. It repays repeated listening.

This recording was one of the first to bring the Concerto before the wider public and it's still one of the best. Soloist and orchestra alike play with fire, subtlety and conviction. It is well recorded too.

The Fantasy has its moments but the Violin Concerto soaked up the best of Schumann's creativity in this domain.

Skirt the event-horizon of the blackest of holes.

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