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J.S. Bach: Privat
J.S. Bach: Privat
Price: £13.25

5.0 out of 5 stars Quality, quantity - and great charm, 23 Sept. 2017
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: J.S. Bach: Privat (Audio CD)
Musical recreation inside the home of J. S. Bach must have been quite something – a wife who'd been a professional singer, all those gifted sons (no doubt competing for attention), and even a gifted daughter (as J. S. himself acknowledged). Their family music produced a memorial (the "Anna Magdalena's little book"), rhapsodic comments from visitors – and in our day many recordings of its known (or surmised) repertoire. Of these albums this offering from Andreas Staier and a group of colleagues is much the best I've heard - I was as delighted as those visitors chez Bach declared themselves to be.

The advantage of a bits-and-pieces programme like this is variety. You do not have to sit through an hour of violin sonatas, or cello suites or keyboard fugues; and you discover that just one movement performed with loving attention (as it is consistently here) can give you so much. There's no huge variety of instrumental or vocal colour, it's true, but Staier's intelligent programming compensates – matching keys and styles to lead the ear. He gives, for example, the bass Georg Nigl a recitative from Cantata 92 which incorporates a chorale, then himself plays a prelude from the Anna Magdalena book on that chorale, and finally accompanies Nigl in a powerful aria from the same cantata.

Singers and players match Staier's intelligence and technique. I mention particularly Anna Lucia Richter, who gives that old chestnut "Schlummert ein" a marvellously tender but completely unsentimental performance (that's the track to sample), and Petra Müllejans, who plays expressively throughout without using a glimmer of vibrato – she relies completely on bow control and accurate tuning, a high-wire act indeed, a model of "period" performance practice so musical that you don't notice it (but then you do!). Staier plays nothing spectacular himself, but is a model of continuo playing, with in this case an active, though unobtrusive, right hand, as is surely right for Bach. There's a lot of wonderful music here, performed with great technique and great love.

The Teldec studio offers a clear, intimate recording appropriate to the programme. Alpha claim 85 minutes on the CD (my player says 84). Is this a record? It's certainly a classy bargain.


Monteverdi: Vespers 1610
Monteverdi: Vespers 1610
Price: £19.55

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Successful blend of scholarship and performance skills, 16 Sept. 2017
This recording presents the best blend of scholarship and performance skills applied to the "Vespers" since Andrew Parrott's 1983 EMI set (which still often tops comparative reviews). John Butt has (without saying so out loud) taken Parrott's fundamental revision of the work (if it is a coherent work, which is often doubted) as a basis on which to build – as have his singers. He differs in using mostly solo voices (or doubles at most) where Parrott still had a chorus, and he lifts the pitch by a semitone, which makes better sense of Parrott's transpositions of the "Lauda" and the Magnificat than Parrott's own A440. He also (by a bit of electronic trickery) uses a Italian baroque organ, which is interesting, given that most of Monteverdi's own (few) performance indications concern organ registration (and are ignored in most other performances). He drops altogether Parrott's idea of reordering the various items on a liturgical basis, and introducing plainchant. I applaud this (we have the Parrott set if we want that sort of thing) and the published order works well in performance. It makes for a rather mean (and expensive) CD set however. I can't see why Butt didn't fill up the recording of the alternative 6-part Magnificat which is never heard.

I'm sorry if all this sounds like Greek to you – but Vesper fans will want to hear the detail. None of it would matter, of course, if the performance were not musically satisfactory, but I'm pleased to say that it is, indeed much better than satisfactory. In recent years the Vespers have often been put on in a showy way – singers all over the hall, high-speed accentuation, romantic highlighting and so on – as if it were necessary to make them entertaining. Butt eschews all that. His team is not quite the polished machine available to Parrott in the 80's – Emma Kirkby, Nigel Rogers, David Thomas et al – but it's not bad, though the women aren’t as good as the men. It’s a pity he uses falsettists rather than high tenors on the alto lines, which often go low. The tenors proper are particularly impressive, clearly taking their cue from Nigel Rogers' approach, and bringing springy energy to all that fast ornamentation. Also good is Butt’s adherence to a fixed grouping for each item, avoiding the “orchestration” – bringing extra voices in or out – that’s a feature of many recordings, including Parrott’s, but is certainly wrong. Most telling of all is Butt's refusal to join the I-have-a-train-to-catch crowd. His is a measured approach, still full of rhythmic character, that allows Monteverdi's dense polyphonic textures to speak; just like Parrott indeed, but with a certain fizz very different to the laid-back, almost Anglican style of the 1983 version. Who's to say which – or either – bears any resemblance to what Monteverdi heard? We have the good fortune to be able to hear both.


Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto; Symphony No. 5; The Hebrides Overture
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto; Symphony No. 5; The Hebrides Overture
Price: £12.00

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Faust goes period ?, 7 Sept. 2017
Isabelle Faust has been flirting with historically-informed performance for many years. I heard her play with Melvyn Tan in 2001 and her recorded chamber music since about 2008 has often been with gut strings and period pianos; though many other recordings – her Beethoven sonata cycle for example – were entirely "modern" – and, perhaps more surprisingly, her Bach recordings are not at all "period". She always seems to have been more interested in different sounds than in earlier playing styles.

This recording of the Mendelssohn concerto may indicate a change of attitude – up to a point. Clive Brown's booklet note describes the considerable evidence we have of how 19th century star violinists played the solo part – though he omits to mention its inconsistency – and it seems that Faust has let this evidence influence her interpretation here. The particularly obvious features of her approach are a big dynamic range, from barely audible whisper to a standard "forte"; vibrato as decorative colouration, not an inbuilt part of tone (though she has never gone in for heavy continuous vibrato); and prominent sliding through positions (or "portamento" as it is more politely termed) which was certainly a feature of late 19th century playing, as early recordings show us. The slow movement of the concerto in particular here sounds quite different from most modern performances; quieter, more fragile, more feminine.

Yet the outer movements are entirely modern in many respects. They are clean (despite the sliding), brilliantly emphatic and metronomically fast, so fast indeed that even Faust can't make much of the positions and fingering we see in the old solo parts. Worse still Heras-Casado could not get the Freibourgers to play really quietly at speed. Much of the work is "pp" and Faust herself honours the marking, but the band do not. They constantly threaten to drown her, though they are only chamber-orchestra size (if rather bass-heavy) and thus no bigger than early 19th c bands - and though in principle they too aim to produce a "period" sound (in practice a generalised one).

I heard the concerto in the Prom concert the same team gave on 3rd September this year and oddly enough in the vast space of the Albert Hall the balance was better than it is here – yes Faust's gut-strung Strad sounded infinitely tiny, but the band's noise had more room to decay (or perhaps it was that the BBC engineers got their miking better than the recording studio).

Speed and emphasis are also the main characteristics of Heras-Casado's performances of the "Reformation". He exploits the Freibourgers' excellent ensemble playing, and I suppose that for younger ears the vigour of his approach may be attractive. But I miss any sense of the religious element in the symphony which meant so much to Mendelssohn and his audience. It's hard to pin this down exactly, but the best example I can think of is the start of the last movement when a solo flute announces Luther's great chorale "Ein Feste Burg" as if giving out a hymn in church. In the Proms performance one felt that the flautist knew and almost pronounced the text: but in this recording we just hear – a tune. This will not do. The chorale and the "Dresden amen" that haunts the first movement are much more than mere tunes, and one must find a rhetoric to express them fully. Conductors in previous generations knew this instinctively – as they also knew that the "Hebrides" has to evoke a seascape – but Heras-Casado does not really understand either piece – yet. Perhaps he was getting more of the idea by the time he got to the Proms. The space and the occasion perhaps inspired (or slightly overwhelmed) conductor and players; their performance was generally slower, certainly grander, and in my view more convincing.

Faust fans will buy this – and perhaps get a surprise. For others the disc may not offer much insight into either major work. Other period performances of the concerto exist on disc, less glamorous but also less driven; many older recordings of both works give very different glimpses of possible 19th century performances – one thinks of the Heifetz/Beecham version of the concerto in particular.

I would call myself a Faust fan, but I do question how far she has thought through her engagement with “period” understanding and practice. Gut strings with period pianos produce lovely sounds in chamber music, but to go beyond a sound-world into stylistic experiment, into period technique, and (more importantly) period rhetoric, takes time. These Mendelssohn works are deeply romantic – “Hebrides” almost defines early 19th century romance – but you would scarcely realise it from these performances. As in her recent Franck Sonata, Faust uses “period” instruments to produce cool, modern, almost anti-romantic interpretation. She certainly makes old warhorses sound different, but I question whether the “difference” has much to do with their composers’ expectations.


Haydn: 'Sun' Quartets, Op. 20 Nos 4-6 [Chiaroscuro Quartet] [Bis: BIS2168]
Haydn: 'Sun' Quartets, Op. 20 Nos 4-6 [Chiaroscuro Quartet] [Bis: BIS2168]
Price: £14.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Work in progress, 5 July 2017
This CD completes Chiaroscuro's recording of Haydn's Op. 20 set. Many of the comments I made about their first Op. 20 disc also apply here – Ibragimova's lead-from-the-front style brings out the opera-diva aspects of the 1st violin part, and her colleagues continue to subordinate themselves. But I get the feeling that this time less concert performance has preceded the recording session. In the very first track, for example, the lower parts rather fumble their fast triplets; and in the first movement of No. 6 even Ibragimova stumbles a bit over the run on the second beat the first time round – which is not to say that she can't play it, but that she hasn't made up her mind what to do with it (quite a tricky decision in that instance).

And that's the real problem I think: Chiaroscuro know they want to do something with these quartets but they haven't yet made up their minds what it is, not in consistent detail. So we get some approximate phrasing and ensemble here and there – the worst case is the fugue in No. 6 which sounds tentative (to put it politely). What is meant to sound exciting sometimes comes out as a bit desperate, and some of the attempts at humour – the Gypsy minuet in no.1, for instance, and the bending-about of the trio in No. 6 – are heavy-handed.

Their successes come most often in slower, quieter music where the basically lovely noise they make counts for most – a sweet tone and sweet tuning with it; the adagio with variations in No. 4 is a fine example of this. Their best moment is the adagio of No. 5, which they take faster than most groups because Ibragimova can spin Haydn's intricate gossamer webs without fear – the result is musical and aural delight worth the price of the disc in itself. Indeed the whole of the F minor quartet is notably successful, perhaps because the group have performed it more often than the rest – it's certainly most performers' favourite of the set. Haydn's strange enharmonic writing in the first movement is not apparent to the listener (as it should not be) despite the difficult key, and the fugue whizzes by cleanly at just the mezza-voce the composer asked for (but so few quartets can manage).

These performances are work in progress, I think, but worth having for the F minor quartet which gets as good an outing as I have ever heard on disc. Among complete recent recorded accounts of Op. 20 I'd put this behind the 2014 Doric Quartet set. The Dorics, like the Chiaroscuro, try to "do something" with Haydn's quartets = not an ignoble ambition by any means - but their efforts are more thought-through and consistent. I still prefer the 1992 Quatuor Mosaiques recording to either of these; the Mosaiques are much more inclined to let Haydn speak for himself, which is probably best on record, if not always in concert.

The recording is excellent in both formats, leaving enough air around the players for their tone to develop. It's worth listening on good equipment if you can as there's a big dynamic range, form just-audible whisper to raucous grind. And there's a hyper-enthusiastic booklet note from Ibragimova's husband, Tom Service.


Carnevale 1729
Carnevale 1729
Price: £23.28

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Three cheers for Hallenberg – but not Monsieur Noir, 26 Jun. 2017
This review is from: Carnevale 1729 (Audio CD)
Ann Hallenberg's previous solo albums have mostly been about particular historic singers: the fabled castrato Farinelli was the most recent example. This time she's built a programme round an event – the Venice Carnival of 1729, a moment when a string of competing opera houses employed star singers and composers to dazzle their visiting (very rich) tourists. Hallenberg has assembled a sort of pasticcio of arias for herself from six different operas, and uses them to give a wonderful display of her skills as an expressive, flexible and stylish singer. It's one more example of the indian summer of the voice the lady has been enjoying for the past few years. I for one am grateful for it.

Now for the buts – and note, they come from a Hallenberg fan.

Great singing but mostly bland music. Venetian houses in 1729 used Italian composers – no Handel or Hasse for them. We're talking Leo, Vinci, Giacomelli. Only one – Orlandini – makes much individual impression (DiDonato also recorded Orlandini arias on her "Drama Queens" album).

Great singing but of arias composed for eight different voices, most notably the three great stars of the day, castratos Farinelli and Senesino, and soprano Faustina Bordoni. All three had distinct styles and vocal ranges – known to us both from contemporary reports and the music written for them. Hallenberg can (of course) sing all their music. She probably has a bigger range and perhaps more power than any of them. But, inevitably, she makes all their music sound much the same, and therefore less interesting. I found a way round this by listening to the arias by singer not by composer – excellent notes make all clear – taking, for instance, all Senesino's arias together. Do this and the character of the original singers and of Hallenberg's own voice become more obvious. She can do Farinelli – a true soprano and a show-off, who inspired flashy, vacuous music – but she has to force her voice at the top; she does Senesino – a mezzo with a limited range but noted for expressive singing within it – best of all, with outstanding control of line; but I think she has too big a voice for Faustina, a mezzo noted for her elaborate ornamentation and control of intricate coloratura, even though she is well up to the technical challenges. Interesting stuff for baroque voice nerds, all this, but still probably too samey for ordinary mortals – no more than three tracks at a time, at any rate: start from Disc 1 (the more interesting) track 5, an Orlandini aria for Senesino.

Accompaniment? So, so. Pomo d'Oro are a good band in the sense that their ensemble and tuning are accurate, and Montanari keeps them following Hallenberg faithfully, neither pushing her in the fast stuff, nor dragging in the slow. But their idea of style is formed by a search for telling sound-effects rather than any study of 18th century string technique: so we get lots of anachronistic muting and pizzicato, not to mention swooping, sliding and swelling – and the harpsichordist keeps a fussy running right-hand commentary going at all times. We are, however, spared the customary strumming; perhaps Hallenberg dislikes the fashion for amplified theorbo. I do hope so.

But the mention of amplification brings on my biggest but of all. The engineering of this recording is another disaster from the producer (Jean Daniel Noir) who wrecked Alan Curtis' last published CD ("Mitologia"). I listened to both CD and SACD. The SACD shows voice and band as two distinct aural layers, each (one can just about tell) satisfactory in itself, though the levels are very high, but put together so clumsily that if you set the volume to hear the band (say, at the point where that harpsichord is just audible) you seem to get Hallenberg sitting in your lap and shouting in your ear – or, if you set the volume to suit the voice, you hear the band as mere wallpaper. The CD layer is the same but not quite so much so. My own best solution was to leave the volume at normal (in this case it comes out very high) and retreat as far as I could from the speakers. All a listener can do is experiment, but whatever you do, a realistic voice-in-a-room acoustic is not available.

BTW. There is an elephant in this Venetian opera-house called George Frideric Handel. Handel was in Venice during the Carnival trying (unsuccessfully) to hire Farinelli to replace Senesino (and Bordoni) who had just left London. He probably heard some at least of the operas on offer on this recording and he certainly returned to Brook Street with an armful of scores and libretti which he pillaged for his own following seasons. Among them was Leo's "Catone" (two arias on this recording) which Handel used as the basis of a Pasticcio in 1732; "Catone"has just been recorded (on Glossa), so if you care for this recording, that one (not bad at all) is a natural next port of call.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 29, 2017 11:32 PM BST


Alma Oppressa - Vivaldi & Handel: Arias
Alma Oppressa - Vivaldi & Handel: Arias
Price: £16.03

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sophisticated and expressive singing of Handel opera arias, 12 Jun. 2017
Since a previous (and very similar) recording in 2013, Julie Boulianne's career has progressed, mostly in North America and France, and mostly in 19th and early 20th century repertoire. She has not performed very much Handel, presumably because (as with Ann Hallenberg) her voice-type has been commandeered by the macho-falsettist brigade in what Handel operas do get performed. Nevertheless Boulianne clearly enjoys Handel - as she demonstrates here.

Once again we get some of Senesino's arias from "Ariodante" – clearly and powerfully articulated – together with arias from lesser-known operas and three sparkling Vivaldi numbers. Things are much as they were on the previous disc; I'd note only that Boulianne's trilling has improved while her coloratura now sounds just a little more effortful - but her expressive singing of a big Handel tune is magnificent. Listen to "Se potessero i sospir' miei", Handel's elaboration in his penultimate opera "Imeneo" of "O Lord, whose mercies numberless" from "Saul" – listen, and be enthralled.

The little band plays cleanly, all the tempi are sensible, and the recording is clear.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 29, 2017 10:18 AM BST


Handel: Ottone
Handel: Ottone
Price: £26.99

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A well-chosen opera expertly delivered, 12 Jun. 2017
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Handel: Ottone (Audio CD)
This is the latest Handel opera from what I think of as Max Emmanuel Cencic's Flying Circus - Cencic gets credited here with the "artistic concept". He seems to have a portfolio of conductors, bands and singers for his various albums, and in this case has put together his best band (Pomo D'Oro), his best conductor (Petrou), a cast of his better regular singers, and one star visitor (Ann Hallenberg). All forces combine well with Hallenberg bringing a touch of real class. Add an excellent recording and the result is the best Handel opera set since Petrou/Cencic "Alessandro" in 2011 – certainly a great improvement on their "Arminio" from 2015.

The only "but" concerns the opera itself. Handel produced "Ottone" the year before "Giulio Cesare" and at the time it was even more popular; but it doesn't have many of the spectacular fast arias which today's audiences appreciate. Instead it favours what the 18th century called the "pathetic" – that is, slower, lightly-scored expressions of deep feeling - love, sadness or longing. We have to a certain extent to "tune in" to this aesthetic if we want to appreciate "Ottone" to the full.

Handel's original "1st Man" was the castrato Senesino (represented by Cencic), famous for his "pathetic representations". The "1st Lady" was Francesca Cuzzoni (Lauren Snouffer here) also known for expressive singing, but she arrived in London only just in time for the opera, which probably explains why the "2nd Lady", Handel's old colleague Margherita Durastanti (Hallenberg in this case) got most of the best tunes. Even the "3rd Lady" the English contralto Anastasia Robinson (here Anna Starushkevych) did well for arias, though the two other men got relatively minor parts. All this means that "Ottone" is really an ensemble piece, and indeed it gets an ensemble performance here, in the sense that there is no weak link in the cast.

Ann Hallenberg justifies her credentials as the best Handel singer of our day, and tops the bill (even as "2nd Lady"). Listen to her aria "Vieni, o figlio" (II.iv) and you hear Handel in expressive mode really lifted from the page – and Hallenberg knocks off the heavy coloratura of "Trema tiranno ancor" (III.i) equally well. Lauren Snouffer is not quite so successful in the most famous aria in the opera, "Falsa imagine" (I.iii), but then the story is that Cuzzoni herself refused to sing the piece on the grounds it was too plain and simple – until Handel threatened to throw her out of the window! Snouffer is better at the faster, lighter music, not least in a dance-duet with Cencic in the final scene. Cencic himself does the "pathetic" pretty well – listen to his "Tanti affanni" (III.ii) - which is perhaps why he chose this opera in the first place. He and the other falsettist both very sensibly stick to a mezza-voce and let the microphone take the strain. Anna Starushkevych is good all round in the different styles and has a fine duet with Hallenberg at the end of Act II, a duet Handel very unusually gives to two female characters, Gismonda (the mother-in-law from Hell) and Matilda (her daughter-in-law elect).

The plot is the usual baroque palace intrigue but there is (from II.viii onward) a long, rather good, confusion-by-night scene a little reminiscent of the last act of "Figaro". The textual history of "Ottone" is convoluted, partly because of the rush before the first performance, and partly because of changes made for many revivals. Cencic (or his advisor) has chosen to stick mostly to the first-night script, adding only a short scene Handel cut from Act III (but later restored) and one other extra aria for Snouffer (just the same plan as that of Nick McGegan's set). He also adds as an appendix three arias for himself from the first revival in 1726. The first of these rather exposes weaknesses in his vocalism which are not so evident in the opera proper.

George Petrou never puts a foot wrong at the helm, giving us appropriate tempi throughout and full but unexaggerated continuo for the recitatives. The recording was made in the Villa San Fermo at Lonigo, where Alan Curtis made many of his Handel Opera discs, but the engineers give this set much more depth and presence than Curtis ever got, and Pomo D'Oro is a bigger and better band that he ever had. I suggest that this recording is an essential buy for Handelians, a recording which makes it far easier to appreciate the opera's particular qualities than the two previous versions.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 13, 2017 11:29 AM BST


Gutter Cleaner with Telescopic Handle Extendible up to 3.6 m
Gutter Cleaner with Telescopic Handle Extendible up to 3.6 m
Offered by Poller
Price: £26.00

1.0 out of 5 stars Flimsy - and of no use in the UK, 20 April 2017
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Being old and clumsy I looked for some way of maintaining gutters without having to climb a ladder clutching a trowel - but if such a tool exists (which I doubt) this is not it. The pole is too flimsy to allow enough traction to scrape out a gutter, and the brush head - if it's meant for gutters at all - is meant for German guttering not for anything in use in the UK. At this price I suppose I should have known better. The supplier offers not a word of explanation either of assembly or use.


Julia Lezhneva - Graun Arias
Julia Lezhneva - Graun Arias
Price: £13.25

7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Her instinct is right, 18 April 2017
This is Lezhneva's fourth solo album – her third for Decca – which is not bad going for a twenty-eight year old singer, and very much a niche specialist at that. I disliked her last CD, called simply "Handel", both for its style and content, but it must have sold well as Decca have given the artist carte blanche for this new effort, a co-production with German Radio. She and her partner Mikhail Antonenko got excited by Carl Heinrich Graun's only famous aria "Mi paventi il figlio indegno" and went in search of other works by this Berlin composer of the 1740's. They came up with the eleven arias recorded here – plus "Mi paventi" – all claimed as premier recordings.

Lezhneva has said before now that Porpora's work fits her voice like a glove, and Porpora and Graun share much the same style. It's elaborately decorative, a vocal equivalent of baroque plaster or woodwork, and intensely difficult to sing. Lezhneva's great quality is the ease and fluency of her coloratura, so I think her instinct is right, and one has to admire the enthusiasm with which she and Antonenko have approached this project. But the couple are amateurs when it comes to musicology, and have become rather too enthusiastic about Graun. He strikes me as rather generic. Yes, there's that one famous aria, but then sopranos also went on singing "The soldier tir'd of war's alarms" right through the 19th century without anyone supposing Arne was an important composer. I heard only one other piece here which I thought worth attention – track 11 "A tanti pianti mei".

Nor do the performances suit me, I'm afraid, admirer of Lezhneva's gifts though I be. Antonenko directs, and he's a sensible musician, and he has a competent band of reasonable size in Concerto Koln (I guess about 20 of them, but we're not given details). But he and Lezhneva have been hanging out too long with the Cencic crowd and have got the idea that to perform baroque music you have to be too fast, accentuate heavily, and ignore the text (and use a twiddling lute to fill in any silences the composer might have intended).

The first two arias here are both expressions of anger, but in these performances they could just as easily be about joy, or fear. This is partly Graun's fault of course – I said he was generic – but it's also the performers; at their pace the text vanishes. Lezhneva gets round the notes, knowing that her audiences will applaud pure speed; but she can do better than this. To see how much better she might listen to Ann Hallenberg's version of "Mi paventi il figlio indegno" on her "Agrippina" album. Hallenberg sings it just a notch slower, spits out consonants – Lezhneva seems to have given up on consonants altogether – and gives her obbligato horns more room. Result: music – not great music, but fairly exciting music.

Lezhneva has an extraordinary gift but is clearly struggling to find an effective way to use it. She's been trying out opera roles in minor houses – and even at Covent Garden – but she lacks the histrionic talent that modern productions demand. Recitals are what she has, but it's hard to develop repertoire that way. So one understands a search for something new, but the answer to the question is clearly not Graun. I think the obvious answer is Handel – operatic Handel of the 1720's and 30's, real music for voices like Lezhneva's. I just hope she finds her way back there. But please: no more Graun.

The recording is like Lezhneva's Decca publicity photos: a bit too close to her and yet soft-filtered. Concerto Koln is a good band but have been put behind an audio curtain – except for that lute.


Schubert: Fantasie in F Minor and Other Piano Duets
Schubert: Fantasie in F Minor and Other Piano Duets
Price: £14.06

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent Tandem Team, 15 April 2017
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The first time you put two solo cyclists together on a tandem you can be pretty sure that they'll come off within twenty yards. And they'll come off again before they realise that they need to relearn their technique, before they understand that one must lead and the other provide intelligent support. I imagine that four-hands piano must be similar, and that's why most four-hands performance is by specialists.

Here however we have two outstanding keyboard soloists from different generations, countries, and contexts: Staier (older, German, period expert) and Melnikov (younger, Russian, modern virtuoso). What they have in common is strong involvement in chamber music, and high intelligence, traits which have allowed them to collaborate on this excellent programme of Schubert four-hands without falling off.

They give us three serious works – the F minor Fantasy, a comparatively well-known and powerful piece, the Variations on an Original Theme, which I confess I'd never heard of but I'm glad to have found, and the Rondo D.951, again a new one on me, but which could easily be a last movement from one of the late Piano sonatas. Between these we get a selection of marches and dances, some witty, some raucous, with a good seasoning from the percussion stops on Herr Staier's Graf copy.

It's a balanced programme, accessible to even this listener who often finds four-hands rather overpowering. The F minor Fantasy gets an intense reading, bringing out both anger and pathos. There's no holding back on climaxes, the Graf providing a wonderful range of colour even under maximum attack, and without the muddiness which the bass end of an industrial grand piano always has. It's great music-making.
The Berlin Teldec studio gives us the acoustic of a salon rather than a concert hall, as is appropriate, and gets us at exactly the right distance from the instrument, where we can hear the decay (surprisingly long) but not the mechanism. Turn the sound well up – four-hands in a drawing room is very loud.

There are two relevant comparisons.

Malcolm Bilson and Robert Levin, two period soloists, issued a Schubert 4-hands recital on Archiv in 1997. They played an actual Graf, and their programme included the Fantasy (as well as the 45-minute "Grand Duo"). It was a fine effort which stands up well today, but they sound just a little apologetic for the Graf, where Staier and Melnikov are positively brazen in exploiting its particular qualities.

The best-known conventional recording of the Fantasy is again by soloists, the famous disc by Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu which also includes the Mozart 2-piano K448. It'll be in my desert island selection, but Staier and Melnikov's version is quite as good in a very different way.


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