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Classical CDs Weekly: Bach, Melton Tuba Quartett, OperaBabes | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Bach, Melton Tuba Quartett, OperaBabes

Classical CDs Weekly: Bach, Melton Tuba Quartett, OperaBabes

An Australian Baroque orchestra, German brass players and crossover artists go straight

The Melton Tuba Quartett


Bach: Brandenburg Concertos, Sinfonias Orchestra of the Antipodes/Antony Walker, Anna MacDonald, Erin Helyard (ABC Classics)

Exactly why this set, recorded in Sydney in 2003, has waited so long for a commercial release is a bit of a puzzle. These are fabulous performances in every sense. The playing is so vibrant, so alive that resistance is futile. Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos are as ubiquitous as Baroque music gets, but their familiarity shouldn’t hide their musical qualities. I loved Riccardo Chailly’s historically informed modern instrument versions, but these recordings demonstrate intelligent period practice in the best imaginable light. The textures, the flavours are so bright, so sharp. Like biting into a homegrown tomato having previously only sampled supermarket rubbish. What the players of the Orchestra of the Antipodes can do, effortlessly, is spring the rhythms and give the solo lines plenty of character. Take the endless chugging quavers in the first movement of No 3. Here they bounce like excitable puppies, floating above a nicely resonant continuo. Anna MacDonald’s tempo for the last movement is agreeably swift, but not extreme.

The natural horns in No 1 are just raucous enough to raise a smile, and Will Wroth’s trumpet playing in No 2 dazzles without causing an attack of tinitus. Erin Helyard’s harpsichord solo in No 5 is flawless, growing in weight as the first movement builds. There are too many superlatives to mention. If you still need persuading, the inclusion of eight sinfonias to church cantatas may swing things. Bach’s recycling skills are shown off; chunks of violin partitas appear in orchestral guise and the opening movement of Concerto No 3 is revamped with prominent horns and oboes. And what a refreshing surprise to see a Bach sleeve depicting something other than the composer in stern mood.

Grand Concerto 4 Tubas: works by John Stevens Melton Tuba Quartett, Duisburger Philharmoniker/Carl St Claire (Acousence Classics)

String quartets, horn quartets, piano trios, yes. But four tubas? There’s a lot of comedic potential to this most ungainly of brass instruments; Gerard Hoffnung remains fondly remembered in the UK. There's a sensitive side to the instrument too - Vaughan Williams wrote a soulful concerto for solo bass tuba late in his career. How do you manage to make four bass lines speak with the necessary clarity? American tuba player and composer John Stevens negotiates potential pitfalls with ease. The tuba isn’t the most forceful of brass instruments, and Stevens emphasises the heft of the full quartet sound in his Grand Concerto without writing endless murky chorale passages, and has his players switch to euphoniums and contrabass tuba to give a bit of tonal variety. The orchestral writing never swamps the tubas; the high string lines in the lyrical Ballade leave plenty of space for us to concentrate on the solo writing. There’s nothing radical in Stevens’s language – this concerto fulfils its purpose with honesty, energy and good humour.

Of the accompanying works, Power sparkles, a fast-moving fanfare for massed tubas. Stevens’s Adagio and the shorter Benediction could pass for updated codas to Bruckner slow movements. You lose yourself in sumptuous waves of sonorous low brass sound. Only the purely orchestral Jubilare! and Adagio for strings alone fail to make a lasting impression. Stevens is happiest in tuba territory. This disc is also an audiophile’s delight; every pedal note captured with accuracy, and Carl St Clair’s Duisburger Philharmoniker are nimble accompanists.

Watch the Melton Tuba Quartett play John Stevens:

OperaBabes: Silent Noon Rebecca Knight, Karen England, Janet Haney (piano) (Warner Classics)


If this disc was released as a simple, ‘straight’ vocal recital under the artists’ actual names, would it receive the same attention? Soprano Rebecca Knight and mezzo-soprano Karen England, their naff moniker unwittingly coined by Des Lynam as he introduced their performance before the 2001 FA Cup Final, have been long associated with the worst excesses of classical crossover – presumably by those who’ve never heard them sing for real. Silent Noon is worlds away from their two previous collections; a stripped-down recital of British songs with unadorned piano accompaniment. There’s nowhere for Knight and England to hide, and the two sound totally comfortable. These aren’t big voices, but heard unamplified, carefully recorded, they’re just right for this material. “This album is without doubt the truest reflection of what we do.” And you have to applaud their choice of composers – well-known numbers by Vaughan Williams, Britten and Purcell nestle alongside songs by the likes of Quilter, Ivor Novello and Albert Ketèlby.

Arranger Noel Vine has transformed most of the songs from solos to duets. This means a lot of singing in thirds and sixths, but not causing significant damage in the process. The results sound pretty natural – exactly what you’d expect if two decent, vocally well-matched singers improvised. Two Britten folk song settings take on unexpected warmth. The two Quilter songs demonstrate the composer’s still underrated talent, and Novello’s "We’ll Gather Lilacs" is dreamy and wistful. A lovely aria from Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl is pure fluff, but exquisite fluff. The two voices are perfectly matched. Will this disc introduce John Ireland, Britten and Purcell to thousands of homes? Let’s hope so.

The endless chugging quavers bounce like excitable puppies, floating above a nicely resonant continuo

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Will this disc introduce John Ireland, Britten and Purcell to thousands of homes? No it did not, their fans hated it.

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