Sunday, 11 January 2009

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, January 2009)

Symphonies / Piano Concertos
Singapore Symphony / LAN SHUI
BIS 1717/18 (4 CDs) / Rating *****

Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977) may be said to be the first truly cosmopolitan composer. Born in Tsarist Russia, he lived for varying periods in Paris, the Caucasus, China and Japan before settling in America. He was married to a Chinese pianist, and his music suitably reflects his eclecticism, encompassing late Romanticism, Stravinsky’s iconoclasm and neoclassicism, popular idioms, tinged with a modernist outlook and generous helpings of Orientalism. The ten major works in this budget boxset (retailing at under $30) include four symphonies and six piano concertos. The shorter pieces include Magna Mater, Symphonic March, Symphonic Prayer, and Festmusik (a 4-movement suite from opera The Wedding of Sobeide).

Arguably the best among these are the Chinese influenced works – the Third Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto, subtitled “Fantaisie”. The latter’s movements have descriptive titles – Eastern Chamber Dream portraying Wu Song’s vanquishing of the killer tiger, royal concubine Yan Kuei Fei’s Sacrifice, and the rondo-like Road To Yunnan – and are so accessible as to make one wonder why it isn’t more regularly heard or performed. Pianist Noriko Ogawa is the fearless and swashbuckling soloist in these highly demanding concertos, while SSO in its first project with BIS (dating from 1999) performs with total conviction. Lan Shui and our national orchestra have the field to themselves, and are unlikely to be challenged in this repertoire for decades to come.

Berlin Philharmonic / SIR SIMON RATTLE
EMI Classics 2076300
Rating ****1/2

The three symphonies by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) on this disc date from the 1930s and 40s, and are in his neo-classical style of composition. Gone are the lush sounds of his early ballets, in its place one finds sparer and astringent textures, and complex contrapuntal set pieces. The music nevertheless retains Stravinsky’s love of syncopation and the idea of multiple rhythms going on simultaneously. The best known is the choral Symphony of Psalms (1930), which finds the Berlin Broadcasting Chorus hale and hearty of voice, alternating reverence with exuberance. The orchestra is the undoubted star throughout, driving the kinetically charged music, especially the outer thirds of the Symphony in Three Movements (1942-45), and making the underrated Symphony in C (1940) sound like a true masterpiece. These “live” performances are well worth catching.

Vienna Philharmonic
Deutsche Grammophon 478 0034
Rating ****1/2

There is a French angle to this quintessential Viennese event helmed by veteran conductor Georges Pretre, the first-ever Frenchmen to direct its proceedings. No French composers here but the Strauss waltz family’s French-themed works. Johann the Younger’s Napoleon March opens the festivities with pomp; his father’s Paris Waltz and Versailles Gallop adding to the merriment, with the former slyly quoting La Marseillaise, then outlawed in Austria. The Orpheus-Quadrille is a potpourri of melodies from Jacques Offenbach’s hit operetta Orpheus in the Underworld, which begins and ends inevitably with the ubiquitous cancan. Not everything is French, as the son and father try their hands in a Russian March and Chinese Gallop, although one will be hard pressed to tell one from the other! The usual favourites Emperor Waltz, Tritsch Tratsch Polka, Blue Danube Waltz and Radetzky March give a familiar ring and rousing close. Happy New Year!

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