Friday, 6 February 2009

CD reviews (The Straits Times, January 2009)

Taman Suara / Sound Journey
Casteels 2008

Rating ****1/2

The Belgian-Singaporean Robert Casteels (born 1958) has carved himself a niche by combining trans-cultural and inter-disciplinary elements in music, eloquently displayed in his latest disc. Taman Suara (2007) has two separate parts: Buluh (bamboo) and Pontianak (the Malay female apparition). Both employ Western instruments and amplified taped sounds of bamboo and banana trees. The Malay titles suggest an assimilation of certain aspects of culture rather than quoting ethnic tunes. Jazz ironically features prominently in the second piece. Both also involve installation art (photos in the CD leaflet), so mere listening isn’t enough.

Sound Journey for three percussionists celebrates tribal drumming, taking a leaf from György Ligeti’s creations. In the 23-minute Symphony No.2 (commissioned for the 2006 Singapore Arts Festival and performed by The Philharmonic Winds conducted by the composer), Casteels holds the Mahlerian worldview of embracing everything, including mathematics, numerology, choral contributions with children’s ditties and closing with a big bang. Just the right tonic for the curious and adventurous.
This CD is available on sale at Earshot, The Arts House @ Old Parliament House.
For more about Robert Casteels, please visit:
Naxos 8.570442

Rating ****1/2

Sir John Tavener (born 1944) is often synonymous with choral music of a hyper-religious bent, easy listening steeped in Russian Orthodoxy with its sine qua non icons. His small volume of piano music shares a similar aesthete but is far less well known. This album is especially welcome because the piano writing is highly idiomatic, filled with celestial choruses, exotic birdsong, resonant tintinnabulation (bell sounds) alternating with pregnant silences, and ecstatic climaxes.

The sprawling 30-minute long Pratirupa (Sanskrit for “reflection”) has all of these. The shorter pieces: Zodiacs, Palin (short for “palindrome”) and Ypakoë (Greek for “to be responsive”) involve modern techniques but are eminently listenable. Possible influences? Arvo Pärt, Olivier Messiaen and less so, Alexander Scriabin, but Tavener is very much his own man. Much sympathy will also be had for two short feline-inspired works – Mandoodles and In Memory Of Two Cats. Dutch contemporary music specialist Ralph van Raat, a sensitive pianist with a steel-clad technique, makes the best possible case for these interesting rarities.

CHOPIN Piano Concertos
Vienna Philharmonic / ZUBIN MEHTA
Deutsche Grammophon 477 7749
Rating ****

It is gratifying to note that Lang Lang, long known for his self-indulgence, attempts to go to the heart of both Chopin piano concertos. The tendency to distort the music to his own wilful ends, most excruciating in the same composer’s Third Sonata, is thankfully absent.
He astutely presents the Second Concerto, chronologically the earlier work, first. Eschewing sentimentality for its own sake and the need to shock and awe, he actually sounds persuasive and idiomatic. The finale is taken at a lithe, light pace and in one passage, he creates a luminous crystalline sound - an unexpected but pleasant surprise. The more grandiose First Concerto is equally convincing, and even if he does not relive the white-hot intensity and vehemence of Martha Argerich, there is still much to enjoy.

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