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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Concerto for violin in A minor BWV1041 (1717-23) [13:11]
Concerto for violin in E major BWV1042 (1717-23)† [16:30]
Concerto for violin and oboe in C minor BWV1060 [13:08] Ļ
Concerto for two violins in D minor BWV1043 [14:21] ≤
Richard Tognetti (violin)
Helena Rathbone (violin) ≤
Diana Doherty (oboe) Ļ
Australian Chamber Orchestra
rec. Eugene Goossens Hall, ABCís Ultimo Centre, October 2005†
ABC CLASSICS 476 5691 [57:58]



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Tognetti has been receiving such lavish praise for his Bach recordings that I feel rather like a character in a Bateman cartoon; The Critic Who Didnít Get Tognettiís Bach. Clearly Iím in a minority of one (see note below) and regular admirers of the violinist and his group, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, can safely disregard me.
 
And itís not that I can pinpoint a catalogue of solecisms or technical frailties. In theory I rather admire what they do. Modern instrument performances with razor sharp clarity, plentiful energy, driving rhythms and splendidly articulated string work are not to be scoffed at, especially when the string orchestra comprises 8-3-3-1 and the leader-soloist himself, with harpsichord continuo.
 
So I do like the general crispness and athleticism of approach. I also like the determination not to rush through slow movements so as to demonstrate some affiliation with the more brain-dead original instrument performers. Itís not historically informed practice to batter baroque slow movements, simply stupidity. So, let me say it again. The A minor Concerto has a wealth of detail, resinous drama in the first movement and a suitably expansive but not Olympian slow movement. Thereís discreet ornamentation of the solo line as well. The companion E major is dramatically convincing, albeit the first movement tuttis sound lightweight. The slow movement is alert and persuasive; neither overcooked emotively nor inert. And those dramatic kicks in the finale inject real theatrical drama into the proceedings.
 
But this is where my doubts creep in. The recording succeeds in making the band sound larger than it is. It also sounds as if the bass line has been spot-miked or unduly boosted. I donít like the galumphing effect in the two violin concertos or the heavy leaning on notes in the violin and oboe concerto. Here Tognetti avers a riskily expressive, rather 1920s moment at 1:03 in the slow movement. In theory I welcome this heightened expression but in the context of these performances it sounds thoroughly unconvincing. Energetic and pointed though this performance is I canít say I felt much. Naturally the Menuhin-Goossens aesthetic was entirely different but the sense of vocalised dialogue between these two musicians rather eclipsed anything Tognetti and Doherty could come up with.
 
The Double Concerto with Helen Rathbone disappointed me. For all the aerated textures and inner writing that is exposed, the first movement feels too fast. The slow movement is rightly slow but the over-egged bass line grated with me. Tognetti clearly wanted to stress the tempo and other contrasts in this concerto and he certainly keeps things alive but the finale is a rather abrupt, butch affair.
 
So I have strongly ambivalent feelings about the performances of these oft-recorded works. If the players and engineers had tried less hard to impress I think paradoxically the performances would have engaged me more. Still thereís a Tognetti tidal wave out there and admirers will doubtless relish precisely those qualities that distracted and irritated me.
 
Jonathan Woolf
 

Note
Jonathan may be in a minority regarding this recording, but not a minority of one.† I too had good reports of this recording, it won an award here in Australia, and so was contemplating a purchase. A friend had bought it, thought it was great, and would lend it to me.
 
So I put it on whilst having a cup of coffee with my wife.  I wasn't listening intently, but a sense of unease began to form in the background.  My wife who enjoys classical music, but isn't a committed fan, then commented "this seems a bit fast" and I had to reply "I think it's awful".  More concentrated listening only bore this out more strongly, and my thoughts correspond to everything in Jonathan's review. 
 
My next thought was "well it's probably too different in style to my favourite recording (Arthur Grumiaux on Philips) so that's why I find it unenjoyable".  The Grumiaux is, of course. much slower - most movements are around a minute longer - so I went to my next recording, which would be a better style match - Andrew Manze & the AAM on Harmonia Mundi.  Timings were very similar to the Tognetti, but the musicality of the Manze shone out - yes, it was fast compared to Grumiaux, but not at the expense of the glorious melodic lines and Bach's rhythms.  Not so with the Tognetti - the melodies and rhythms have been pulled to pieces (if I was being really, I might say "hacksawed"). The gentle joyousness of Bach has been lost.
 
I lent it to another friend of great musical knowledge and experience, and her reaction was exactly the same as mine.  So Jonathan's club membership is growing!
 
I had to be brutally honest with the friend who lent me the recording, and have promised to lend him the Grumiaux and Manze to see what he thinks.
 
On a related matter, I was also very disappointed by the ACO's accompaniement of Angela Hewitt in the keyboard concertos on Hyperion, where the problems Jonathan has described here also appear.  Nothing wrong with Miss Hewitt's playing (her solo Bach keyboard recordings are one of the great treasures of my collection), but I found the aggressive noise from the orchestra totally offputting.  They fall a long, long way short of Murray Perahia's joyous set with the ASMF.

David J Barker

 

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