Thursday, 28 August 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2014)

Complete Piano Concerto Recordings
Sony Classical 88843013272 (19CDs) 

The French pianist-turned-conductor Philippe Entremont was only 16 when he won the Marguerite Long Piano Competition in 1951, and was soon signed on a long-term record contract with Columbia Records. These classic recordings with the great American orchestras, mostly under the direction of conductors Leonard Bernstein and Eugene Ormandy, date from 1958 to 1981. Included are a raft of Romantic concertos (Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Rachmaninov), major French repertoire (Saint-Saens, Faure, D’Indy and Ravel) and contemporary works (Bartok, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Milhaud, Khachaturian, Bernstein and Jolivet).  

Many of these have been reissued in various guises but remain examples of whole-hearted pianism that is unafraid to wear heart-on-sleeve. His playing was generous, full-blooded and passionate, which won him much favour among the Americans. New to the CD catalogue are his Mozart recordings (Piano Concertos Nos.13, 17 and 22) which reveal much sensitivity and sympathy for the idiom. In honour of Entremont’s 80th birthday this year, all the discs display the original sleeve-art from the LPs as well as the programme notes. Here is a treat and boon for all nostalgics. 

POULENC Complete Chamber Works
London Conchord Ensemble
Champs Hill Records 028 (2 CDs) / ****1/2

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was the best loved and universally performed of the French composers known as Les Six, a loosely knit group that made its name in Paris following the First World War. His chamber music has some of his most approachable music, with a gift of lyricism balanced by generous doses of wit, irony and poignancy. He is one of very few composers who could sound both flippant and serious within the same breath.

The five sonatas on the first disc, relatively later works, are already staple repertoire for each of the instruments. The very beautiful Flute Sonata (1957) is the most familiar, followed by the substantial and sometimes jazzy Cello Sonata (1948), with the athletic Clarinet Sonata (1962) and bittersweet Violin (1943) and Oboe Sonatas (1962) not far behind.

The second disc highlights a wealth of music for woodwind and brass, with the gaiety and drollery of the Sextet (1939) and Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon (1926) being particularly infectious. The standout solemn work is the Elegie for horn and piano (1957) written in memory of the British horn virtuoso Dennis Brain. The shorter sonatas and pieces for guitar, clarinet, flute and piccolo also show Poulenc as a master of miniatures. The London Conchord Ensemble led by pianist Julian Milford is an excellent guide to these treasures, on an album which retails at budget price.   

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A CONCERT TO ATTEND: The Bird of Time: Asian A Cappella by The Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Do not miss this concert by one of Singapore finest a cappella choirs, The Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Lim Yau, which has made it a mission to perform Asian a cappella choral music.

THE BIRD OF TIME Asian a cappella

Zechariah GohPeng (鵬)

Takatomi NobunagaRubáiyát (ルバイヤート)

Francisco FelicianoSi Yahweh Ang Aking Pastol

Lee GeonyongMueonga Nepyeon (무언가 네편)

Lee GeonyongMe Mil Muk Sa Ryeo (메밀묵 사려)

Francisco FelicianoPamugun 

Date: 31 August 2014, Sunday, 5:00pm 
Place:Victoria Concert Hall
Tickets from $15 - 30
Available at
and SISTIC outlets

Monday, 25 August 2014

SHUXIANG, ESTHER & FRIENDS / Yang Shuxiang and Friends / Review

Yang Shuxiang, Violin et al
Esplanade Recital Studio
Saturday (23 August 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 25 August 2014 with the title "When locks fly and bow-hairs fray".

There exists a “golden generation” of young classical musicians in Singapore born in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Violinists feature prominently, and Yang Shuxiang, graduate from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and now studying in Boston, is arguably the most flamboyant among them. His imposing stature, matinee idol hair and passionate response to music rather makes him stand out.

Musically he is equal to the best of them, and when these factors collude, sparks fly in concert as this outing soon proved. It however began sedately with the World Premiere of young Singaporean Phoon Yu’s Elegy for violin, piano and string quartet.

In Phoon Yu's Elegy, the composer (seated left)
also served as the pianist's page-turner.

The second-generation composer (son of the esteemed Phoon Yew Tien) proved to be a chip off the old block, with his highly coherent tonal work sustaining an air of sombre anguish through its 6 minutes. The plaint of the strings was contrasted with series of piano chords and the solo violin’s attempts to establish a melodic line, ending definitively with a strum on a piano bass string by the composer himself.

The atmosphere lightened with Brahms’s Violin Sonata No.2 in A major (Op.100), where Yang’s sumptuous and full-bodied tone soon took flight. The performance was distinguished with a fiery vehemence in the outer movements, contrasted with singingly lyrical asides through its course. The balance achieved with Hong Kong-born American pianist Esther Ning Yau, whose clarity of articulation and pedalling were exemplary, was also excellent.

For film composer Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy, which improves on the popular Sarasate warhorse, Yang took on a dramatic life and death stance from start to end. With locks flying and bow-hairs fraying, the level of intensity he achieved was frightening, and the frenzied ending saw him finishing a beat ahead of the piano.

The intermission was brief respite before the onslaught on the senses that was Ernest Chausson’s Concert for violin, piano and string quartet, the same forces that began the evening. Those who remember Yang’s impassioned take on the same composer’s Poeme at the President’s Young Performers Concert several years ago will take delight in tripling the dose of adrenaline here.

Cast symphonically in four movements and lasting almost three-quarters of an hour, Yang, Yau and the quartet formed by violinists Alan Choo and Gabriel Lee, violist Jeremy Chiew and cellist Cho Hang-Oh made every minute count. Interestingly, the arrangement of the musicians on stage made it appear that the work was scored for violinist and piano quintet.

The dominance of Yang as de facto leader was because he was the only player standing, thus becoming the focal point. His virtuosic flourishes and the floridly exuberant piano part were well supported by the quartet which traded every blow with equal trenchancy.

Seldom has the three note motif (D-A-E) of the bristling first movement been stated this emphatically, a portent of things to come. Even the laid-back rocking rhythm of the Sicilienne and dirge-like slow movement could not hold back the deluge of emotion that inundated the rapturous finale. This showing, greeted with a chorus of cheers,  just about eclipses the memory of past performances. But that is the essence of live music making, the secret of which is to play and live for “now”.

All photos by the kind permission of Yang Shuxiang and Friends.


Singapore Lyric Opera
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (22 August 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 25 August 2014 with the title "Two Asian gems unveiled".

The Singapore Lyric Opera has made it a point over the years to engage Asian singers in its major productions. Many vocal gems have been unveiled to the Singapore public as a result. Now meet two more as Sri Lankan-British soprano Kishani Jayasinghe and Filipino-American tenor Arthur Espiritu made their spectacular debuts here.

Jayasinghe, who helms the title role of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow later in October, immediately made an impact in Hanna Glawari’s hit-song Vilja-Lied. Singing in English, her pure and radiant voice with the sweetness of nectar, easily reached the topmost spots without straining or stretching. Her cultured enunciation and immaculate articulation also served well in the coloratura favourite Gounod’s Jewel Song from Faust, now sung in the original French.

No less impressive was Espiritu, who opened with Donizetti’s Una furtiva lagrima from Elisir d’amore, revealing a passionate bleeding-heart sensibility in the mould of The Three Tenors. His clear ringing tone showcased the popular Neapolitan song Torno a Sorriento (Come Back To Sorrento), which conductor-cum-emcee Joshua Kangming Tan humorously explained as a plea for a new sewage system to be built in the Italian town. So much for the romance.

Local SLO regulars mezzosoprano Anna Koor and baritone William Lim were limited to one aria each. Koor sported a gigantic rose on her gown and flirtatiously made eyes at the audience in Bizet’s Habañera from Carmen, while Lim was his usual dependable and lyrical self in Wolfram’s Ode to the Evening Star from Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

The SLO Orchestra supported the singing sensitively and with much subtlety, never overwhelming the voices at any point. Conductor Tan also led the ensemble in two substantial overtures, from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Wagner’s Tannhäuser, both highlighting fine solos and cohesive ensemble playing.

The voices multiplied as the evening developed, the first duet being The Presentation of the Rose from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Koor’s Octavian (a famous cross-dressing role) and Jayasinghe’s Sophie blended well in this declaration of secret love between two young protagonists.

Even better was the substantial chunk of Act One in Puccini’s La Boheme when Espiritu’s Rodolfo encounters Jayasinghe’s Mimi and their hands meet. The former’s Che gelida manina (Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen) and the latter’s Si, mi chiamano Mimi (Yes, They Call Me Mimi) truly touched and hit the audience’s simpatico buttons. Spontaneous clapping and cheers followed each aria, no doubt encouraged by conductor Tan’s (right) permission to applaud ad libitum.

The magical evening closed with the Quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto, led by Espiritu’s opening gambit Bella figlia dell’amore (Lovely Daughter of Love) as his lecherous Duke of Mantua seeks yet another amorous conquest. The four voices came as one in this rapturous outpouring that brought the house down. What could follow after this ovation? Yet another performance of the beloved Quartet beckoned. The performers really understood the meaning of the exclamation “encore!”. 

Concert photo by the kind courtesy of Sarah Grace Ng (with permission from Singapore Lyric Opera).

Friday, 22 August 2014

VOICE OF CELLO & CHAMBER MUSIC NIGHT / Singapore Raffles International Music Festival / Review

Singapore Raffles 
International Music Festival
The Chamber @ The Arts House
Wednesday (20 August 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 August 2014 with the title "Upbeat end to cello, chamber gig".

The inaugural Singapore Raffles International Music Festival brought together talented young musicians and teachers from Asia in four days of competition, masterclasses and concerts at The Arts House. The third evening’s concert was a showcase in two parts, the first half highlighting ensemble cello playing, followed by chamber music.

Opening the evening was a guest performance by 9-year-old cellist Li Zi Yi who gave an adroit and confident account of the 1st movement from Saint-Saens’s First Cello Concerto. How unusual it is for a musician to be so technically strong yet at a loss of words on being interviewed. When asked what piece he was to perform, all he could muster was, “I forgot!” much to the amusement of the audience.    

The cello ensembles that followed were spared the blushes of awkwardness. The Malaysian Cello Quartet had fun with three Malay songs and dances in excellent arrangements by Leonard Yeap, which the ronggeng took on the warmth and sultriness of Latin American tangos. The Natasha Liu Studio Ensemble (below) of eight coaxed a rich and fulsome sound in the central section of David Popper’s Concert Polonaise, with their leader-mentor Liu impressively helming the solo cadenzas.

The young SOTA Cello Ensemble (above) was boosted with one more player, but was over-rushed in Schubert’s First Military March, with a reading that lacked nuance or subtlety. When four teachers - Liu, So Youn Park, Song Woon Teng and Linda Kollati (below) - came together in an arrangement Albinoni’s famous Adagio in G minor, they showed how things were done, with much feeling and tenderness.

The chamber music half began with the 1st movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet from the MusicPro Camerata Kuala Lumpur (above). Standing out was clarinettist Chen Ya-Ching whose tone was full-bodied and phrasing amply articulated, well supported by her string colleagues even if they briefly grappled with intonation issues.

Much welcome was a performance of Italian baroque composer Giuseppe Brescianello’s Sonata in G minor on period instruments (above). Leading on baroque violin was none other than Alan Choo, who shared the melodic lines with Trevor Sze on baroque bassoon. The accompaniment was provided by Shawn Tan’s baroque cello and Shane Thio whose harpsichord notes were simulated on electronic keyboard. The sound in its three movements, mellow yet incisive, was a breath of fresh air.

The concert closed with the dynamic duo of flautist Roberto Alvarez and harpist Katryna Tan. Young Singaporean Chen Zhangyi’s Five Constellations were short and varied numbers with maximum mileage yielded from both instruments. In the final two pieces, flowing lyricism in Coma Berenices was well contrasted with the jazzy flourishes of Eridanus. The infectious Spanish rhythms of Jacques Ibert’s Entr’acte gave a suitably animated and upbeat note to close the proceedings. 

The Natasha Liu Studio Ensemble with
Singapore's "First Lady of the Cello" Mrs Herminia Ilano.
The Malaysian Cello Quartet with
Natasha Liu (extreme L) and Mrs Herminia Ilano.

All photos by the kind permission of the Singapore Raffles International Music Festival.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2014)

MOZART Piano Concertos Nos.20 & 25
Ensemble Mozart / Claudio Abbado
Deutsche Grammophon 479 1033 / *****

This recording of a live concert in March 2013 at the Lucerne Festival marks the end of a legendary partnership that has endured almost half a century. Argentina-born pianist Martha Argerich and the late Italian conductor Claudio Abbado (who died in January) were as much a glamour item last year as they were in their first recording of Ravel and Prokofiev concertos in 1967. In the evergreen music of Mozart, their shared passion finds a spirit of playfulness and adventure that is undimmed by the years (she was 72 and he 79 at the time).

There is no fiery rhetoric or hot-headedness in the apparent pomp of Piano Concerto No.25 in C major (K.503), while cool heads prevailed in the storms and stresses of Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor (K.466). What one finds unequivocally is an unspoken serenity that transcends time and the ages, most evident in the lingering slow movements. The finales spark to life, but there is no rushing to strike awe or impress. Their partnership is just a celebration in the effervescence of living itself. Such is the eternal essence of joyous and glorious music making. 

Complete RCA Album Collection
RCA Red Seal 88843039072 (6 CDs) / *****

This box-set commemorates the 25th death anniversary of the formidable British pianist John Ogdon (1937-1989), who was best known for his mastery of Romantic repertoire and fearsomely virtuosic works often shunned by others. Six long-playing records for the RCA Victor label dating from 1967 to 1972 have been re-released for CD with the original artwork retained. Pride of place is Alkan’s 50-minute long Concerto for Solo Piano, from the twelve etudes in the minor keys. This stupendous reading remains one of the defining pioneer recordings of music by the French Romantic recluse. True to his penchant for monumentality, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and Rachmaninov’s two piano sonatas, replete with massive chords and big gestures, are accorded their due.

The true rarities are piano concertos by 20th century American composers Peter Mennin and Richard Yardumian (Passacaglia, Recitative & Fugue) partnered by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Igor Buketoff. Dissonance and neo-Bachian polyphony contrast these extremely well-crafted but unjustly neglected works. Two recital programmes of rarely-heard pieces by Danish composer Carl Nielsen and popular warhorses by Franz Liszt (the legendary 1972 recording from Tokyo) demonstrate the breadth and catholic tastes of an artist, cruelly afflicted by manic-depressive disease, who left us all too soon.     

Monday, 18 August 2014

CLANGOR! / MARGARET LENG TAN Toy Piano Recital / Review

Mohamed Sultan 72-13
Saturday (16 August 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 18 August 2014 with the title "More than just a toy piano".

From the legendary Singaporean artist Margaret Leng Tan, one should only expect the unexpected. The Juilliard-trained classical pianist (one remembers her in a Mozart piano concerto with the Singapore Symphony in 1981) has over the decades styled herself as the “high priestess of the avant-garde” (John Cage’s silent 4”33” being a speciality) and now the “queen of the toy piano”.

She has this field to her own, and how she commands it. The second recital at the Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFAS) was a free and non-ticketed event, devoted wholly to music for the toy piano. Almost single-handedly she has turned child’s play into a serious art form, and here were the fruits of her labour.  

The hour-long event opened as a one-woman procession with toy cymbals, making her way to the stage like an Energiser bunny in John Kennedy’s Fanfare from The Winged Energy of Delight. Then she settled in front of her upright Schoenhut toy piano, accessorised with other implements that were “blu-tacked” on its top.

Tools of the trade

The first piece was young Taiwanese composer Ying-an Lin’s Drunkard’s Dance (2013) which was played on both keyboard and a coffee tin, hit and stroked with a metal stick. A perceptibly Chinese melody was heard before the work abruptly ended with the tin sent hurtling off-stage. According to Tan, a tin of hazelnut cream produced a different and desired timbre from the usual coffee.

Fellow toy-pianist Phyllis Chen’s Carousel (2009) and Cobwebbed Carousel (2010) was a hypnotically beautiful diptych. These were produced by an accompanying hand-cranked music box which played a perforated paper roll, and later inverted to produce a different sequence of notes for the second piece. Simple yet beguilingly effective.

James Joslin’s Für Enola (2011) involved a jack-in-a-box wound until it popped at a crucial moment, and a spinning top that ran its course before falling off the piano. David Wolfson’s Twinkle, Dammit! (2011) with its undertones of violence was a tribute to the trauma of childhood piano lessons – repetitive scales, rapped knuckles (with a toy hammer) and obsessive quotes of Ah vous dirai-je Maman. Here was an imagined piano lesson with Chucky, no less.

Monica Pearce’s Clangor (2013) was a lament that juxtaposed the sound of three bicycle bells, each struck and trilled in different tones. Mexican Jorge Torres Saenz’s Toy Symphony (2013) in five short movements brought in almost everything save the kitchen sink. The Night Music movement was a tribute to Bartok, with rustles, tweeting crickets and bird whistle, while the finale Leng Tan Toyccatina was a virtuosic etude to end all etudes.

The final work saw Tan at her most theatrical with Jed Distler’s Minute Ring (2006), a parody on Wagner’s 15-hour, four-night Ring cycle, reduced to just a minute long. She donned a horned Valkyrie helmet, crunched out the major leitmotifs of the operas, culminating with Siegfried’s moment of shock when he encounters the supine Brunnhilde with the exclamation “Das ist kein Mann!” (This is not a man!). Tan’s return to next year’s Festival with a major new work will be keenly anticipated. 

Margaret Leng Tan meets with the next generation of
Singaporean musicians: pianist Song Ziliang,
composer Chen Zhangyi and flautist Cheryl Lim.

GALA - RETURN OF THE BRUBECK / Singapore Chinese Orchestra with Brubeck Brothers Quartet / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet
Singapore Conference Hall
Friday (15 August 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 18 August 2014 with the title "When Brubeck met the Chinese orchestra".

It is a curious fact here that when one wants to hear symphonic jazz and crossover music, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra are the go to people. In the past year, the SCO has presented an all-Gershwin concert, collaborated with country fiddler Mark O’Connor and brought back Chris Brubeck, the ever-versatile jazzman son of legend Dave Brubeck. His third appearance here featured the Singapore debut of the Brubeck Brothers Quartet (BBQ).

Alongside Chris was his brother drummer Dan, guitarist Mike DeMicco and pianist Chuck Lamb, who dominated centrestage, discreetly supported by the SCO conducted by Music Director Yeh Tsung. It is the very nature of crossover symphonic concerts that the special guests were the main draw, and the quartet performing mostly original music by Dave Brubeck did not disappoint.

Chris was the main spokesman, regaling the audience with anecdotes about each piece and their inspirations. Then he comfortably alternated between electric bass guitar, trombone and later even crooning, exuding that intense yet nonchalant air that only jazz people know how. In My One Bad Habit Is Falling In Love, the title from a quote by Ella Fitzgerald, his trombone poured out the moody blues, contrasted by the heady procession of tunes in The Basie Band Is Back In Town.  

Mr Broadway was written for a 1960s television detective series starring Craig Stevens (of Peter Gunn fame), a highly rhythmic and catchy number that should have caught more fame except that the show was canned after one season. More classical inclined was Brandenburg Gate Revisited, a theme and variations piece based on a Bachian aria with the orchestra serving the concertino role of the baroque concerto grosso while the quartet improvised.

The only non-Brubeck numbers included an uncharacteristically tepid account of Gershwin’s Strike Up The Band, Eric Watson’s unusually jazzy Mahjong Kakis based on the quintessentially Chinese game for four - a far better account - and Leroy Anderson’s Jazz Pizzicato, where the winds unwittingly upstaged the plucked strings.

The popular standards were reserved for the latter part of the two-and-a-half hour concert. Dan Brubeck’s drums were afforded a prolonged solo in Jazzanias, while pianist Lamb commanded the keys in In Your Own Sweet Way. Paul Desmond’s ubiquitous Take Five, the Brubeck signature tune, got the audience all excited, not least with four SCO musicians improvising over the world’s most immediately recognisable 5/4 rhythm.

Tan Man Man’s erhu, Zhong Zhi Yue’s sheng, Yu Jia’s pipa and Han Lei’s guanzi took turns in wowing the audience and the quartet members themselves, with the longest and loudest applause reserved for Han’s stunning acrobatics and long-held final note. It was the non-standard time signatures and beats that made these numbers memorable: the invigorating 9/8 in Blue Rondo à la Turk and quirkingly off-centre 7/4 for Unsquare Dance.

It is not often that an audience at an SCO concert gets this worked up and vocal, but the intoxicating combination of jazz and Chinese instruments did the trick. Two encores Brubeck’s Marian McPartland by the quartet unaccompanied and a reprise of the end of Blue Rondo brought the evening’s show to a rowdily memorable close.

All photos by the kind permission of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

Friday, 15 August 2014

THE PLANETS / Orchestra of the Music Makers / Review

Orchestra of the Music Makers
Esplanade Concert Hall
Wednesday (13 August 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 August 2014 with the title "Planets that are out of this world".

One thing is for certain: the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) just loves doing big concerts. Its latest outing, guest-conducted by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s Associate conductor Joshua Kangming Tan, had not just an orchestral blockbuster, but a full-length concerto and choral work for good measure.

The concert began with Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, joined by 100 voices from the Vocal Associates Festival Chorus and Children’s Chorus singing in Hebrew. The sheer exuberance of the percussion almost drowned out the singers in the jazzy and syncopated first psalm (Make a Joyful Noise), but it got better in the second psalm (The Lord is My Shepherd) when boy soprano Samuel Yuen’s silky voice rang out pure and true. The final psalm (Lord, Lord), with its contrite message, was a salving balm for the spirit.

The orchestra then played sensitive partner to SSO first violinist Chan Yoong Han in Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor. How the ensemble responded to the fiery and virtuosic solo part was a measure of how its young players have matured with each concert. The slow second movement gave the woodwinds moments to shine, and the quartet of French horns were a paradigm of perfect control and restraint.

Even in the rambunctious finale, the very steady yet exhilarating pace maintained by the orchestra allowed Chan’s flight of fancy to soar unabated to its brilliant conclusion. His encore, a movement from Ysaye’s Fifth Sonata, was an ethereal portrayal of a nascent morn.

Gustav Holst’s The Planets, the popular seven-movement suite on celestial bodies and mythology, occupied the second half. It may be said that his orchestration influenced several generations of film composers, especially in the sci-fi genre. Given OMM’s love and sympathy for celluloid music, this suited the players to a tee,

The vehemence and violence of Mars, The Bringer of War was trenchantly realised, and the debt to which the Star Wars franchise owes it becomes immediately apparent. Excellent solos from horn principal Alan Kartik, concertmaster Edward Tan and principal cellist James Ng distinguished Venus, The Bringer of Peace with its tender entreaties.

Mercury, The Winged Messenger was blest with much lightness and fluidity, while Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity, the hit tune of the seven, was given a grandstanding quality that was wholly appropriate. Unusually cogent was the orchestra’s traversal of Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age, which doddered so convincingly on creaky legs that its rejuvenation at the end became a true revelation.

The manic march of Uranus, The Magician soon dissipated, with the wordless women’s voices diffusing ever so insidiously into Neptune, The Mystic that it brought a chill down the spine. Credit goes to chorus director Khor Ai Ming for so finely honing their invisible act, which flickered ever so gently until they drifted out of orbit.

Loud and prolonged applause led conductor Tan to poll the audience as to their choice of encore: Mars or Jupiter. Jupiter won handsomely and by its glorious end, almost three hours had elapsed as if within an instant. That is relativity for you. 

Photographs by the kind permission of the Orchestra of the Music Makers.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2014)

HJ LIM, Piano
Warner Classics 914509 2 / ****1/2

Although Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) were born within three years of each other, their music is not readily associated and infrequently coupled on disc. This recital by young Korean pianist and Youtube sensation HJ Lim (the stage name of Lim Hyun-Jung) highlights the similarities between the fastidious Frenchman and the wild, volatile Russian, while maintaining their own distinctiveness. There is much freedom and liberties taken in Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales while the semblance of classical form in the Sonatine is gate-crashed by its tempestuous finale.

In between these are Scriabin’s Fourth and Fifth Sonatas, transitional works which rapidly escalate from a languid stillness to fiery incandescence. These contrasts are mirrored in the Two Poems Op.32, which sound like miniature portraits of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There are two grand waltzes to close. Scriabin’s Waltz in A flat major relives Chopinesque elegance with an ecstatic ending, but sounds polite beside the cataclysmic sweep and fatal whirling of Ravel’s La Valse, the waltz to end all waltzes. Lim laps all this up with great relish, and the performances take flight to stratospheric reaches.  

KHRENNIKOV Symphonies & Concertos
Melodiya 10 02086 (3 CDs) / ****

Has there been a composer more vilified and despised than Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007)? From the 1940s to the fall of the Soviet Union, he was the all-powerful First Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers. In effect Stalin’s commissar on musical matters, he subjected composers like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian to charges of formalism and being counter-revolutionary, and attempted to suppress the progress of an entire generation of new composers. His own music typically expresses that ethos of Socialist Realism and glorification of the State. He was however not a talentless hack as many made him out to be.

Khrennikov’s three symphonies, composed between 1935 and 1974 and modelled on the music of prolific symphonist Nikolai Myaskovsky (who wrote some 27 symphonies), are well-crafted but reveal little development of form and style over the decades. The pairs of violin concertos and cello concertos are very lyrical and may be enjoyed like Dmitri Kabalevsky’s aurally undemanding offerings for the same medium. The four piano concertos are virtuosic and glittering while missing out on Prokofiev or Shostakovich’s acid wit.

In short, Khrennikov was a good craftsman and middling talent who would have excelled as a Hollywood film composer had he been American. These recordings on the State-controlled music label Melodiya, by big names like conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov, violinist Vadim Repin and Khrennikov himself on piano, give an indication to the level of importance he commanded in the old hierarchy. With Khrennikov’s demise, these are unlikely to be bettered, or repeated for that matter.