The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews - Vin­cent Plush

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.

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