Russia: Romance and Revolution Various artists ABC Classics (8 CD set) Cello at the Opera Sally Maer, cello ABC Classics In general, I’ve been pretty happy with the CDs sent me to review. Then, out of the blue, two offerings arrive on the same day. Both have irritated me, but why? Packaging.
Cello at the Opera is Sally Maer’s third release on ABC Classics. Somehow I missed its predecessors, Celtic Cello and Cello Diva. Her biography notes that this classically trained London musician (and, since 2004, Australian resident) has carved out her own style as “Cello Diva”. This enabled her to become “a headline act on luxury cruise ships”. Warning bells: we are approaching the shoals of Andre Rieu and Andrea Bocelli.
Only one of the 18 tracks lasts longer than five minutes: perfect packaging for afternoon drive shows. Seven tracks credit Joseph Twist as arranger. The cello is confined to its baritone register, rarely soaring heaven-wards. (I found myself shouting, “Take it up the octave!”) The arrangements are deadpan and unremarkable. Surely Maer’s pit experience in the Sydney Opera House should have suggested a few things about breathing, phrasing, rubato pacing and dramatic delivery?
Most principal players in Australian orchestras have greater claim to a CD. That cover image is designed to appeal to every red-blooded male. Cynicism aside, these sort of things can be successful both commercially and artistically — remember that magnificent flautist Jane Rutter? — but no packaging can disguise the product’s impoverishment.
Similar thoughts arise with the eight CDs of Russia: Romance and Revolution, an experience about as inspirational as the Nazi retreat from Leningrad. Here the A&R folks have dug deep into the ABC’s back catalogues to mine anything that might have a Russian name to it. Very deep: some of these performances (the sleeve notes reveal no dates) go back to the 1970s. What is especially grating here is the unevenness of the tracks, not just dated studio technology but also performance standards. Yes, it’s great to have all-Australian performances but can musicians hold a votive candle to their Russian counterparts in performing Russian music?
The prospect of encountering genuinely “revolutionary” music commemorating the centenary of the Russian Revolution of 1917 excited me. That excitement evaporated with the repertoire: more than three hours of Tchaikovsky, versus a nine-minute piano piece by Scriabin. For me, the only discovery was a three-minute piano piece by Zaderatsky (1891-1953).
Clearly, these products fund more adventurous releases. Repertoire is not the buzz. Packaging is what matters. The cover art proclaiming Russian expressionism excites us to swipe our plastic. At $65 (compared with $25 for Ms Maer’s operatic confection) it’s a pretty good deal. Just don’t expect star-studded performances, nor multi-star reviews.
It’s good to see marketers stretching to bring more shoppers to the market. But perhaps we should remember we’ve had classical music radio stations for more than 40 years. Are audiences not more discerning these days?
Move over, Madame Melba. You can’t sing us muck any more.