Sunday, 1 March 2009

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, February 2009)

BRITTEN Piano Concerto / Diversions
BBC Scottish Symphony / Ilan Volkov
Hyperion 67625 / Rating *****

Benjamin Britten’s works for solo piano and orchestra hail from his eclectic youth. Characterised by a vigour of one making his mark yet upholding well-worn traditions, this is very accessible music. The 4-movement Piano Concerto relives Prokofiev’s blend of lyricism and dissonance. Its revised 3rd movement, a passacaglia entitled Impromptu is its spiritual centre and best music, replacing a more diffuse Recitative and Aria, which has been helpfully included. Diversions (for piano left hand) was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein (who inspired similar creations by Ravel and Prokofiev) and is a marvellously inventive set of variations, while the 7-minute-long Young Apollo is a brilliant fanfare with string accompaniment. Scottish pianist Steven Osborne is fully attuned to this vibrant idiom, and the luxuriant recorded sound supplants those of historic recordings with Sviatoslav Richter and Julius Katchen, conducted by the composer himself. No small feat.

HANS KRASA Brundibar
Northwest Boychoir
Music of Remembrance
Naxos 8.570119 / *****

The music on this disc is a reminder lest we forget the evil than men do in the name of ideology or religion. The Czech composer Hans Krasa (1899-1944) was one of many Jewish artists who were murdered during the Second World War. His children’s opera Brundibar received 55 performances in Terezin, the sham “model” concentration camp the Germans built to fool the International Red Cross. Virtually all the performers in the original production died in Nazi gas chambers. The half-hour long opera centres around two children who attempt to buy milk for their ailing mother but are accosted by the villainous organ grinder Brundibar, whose moustache suggests a certain fascist dictator.

The music is highly melodic, simple and folk-like, with the light orchestration built around what instruments were available then. The revised English libretto by Tony Kushner is typically crafted for American audiences. The children and young adult performers in this production are excellent. This disc also includes Krasa’s jazzy Overture and Lori Laitman’s song cycle I Never Saw Another Butterfly for soprano and clarinet, based on children’s poetry from the Holocaust. All this makes for a poignant musical experience.

BRAHMS & JOACHIM Violin Concertos
Danish National Symphony Orchestra
Virgin Classics 5021092 / Rating ****

This paring is a totally apt one as the Hungarian violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was one of Johannes Brahms’ closest friends, and for whom the latter’s great Violin Concerto (Op.77) was dedicated. To be completely honest, Joachim’s Concerto in the Hungarian Manner is not in the same class as the Brahms. Predating it by almost 18 years, it runs past the 40 minute mark without saying as much. Its idiom is conservative, in the same vein as Max Bruch’s creations, but makes up with its virtuosity and delicious Hungarian-styled finale. German violinist Christian Tetzlaff has the requisite technique to make the best case possible for the music. His Brahms is very good too, and if this combo piques your interest, go for it.

EMI Classics 2076232 (2 CDs)
Rating *****

For anyone who loves the piano’s sonorities and its orchestral possibilities, this budget-priced set is a no-brainer. One finds Argerich, the Amazon of the keyboard in inspired form partnering a host of talented younger colleagues. The first disc is an all-Russian affair; Rachmaninov’s coruscating Second Suite (with Gabriela Montero) is happily contrasted with his simpler Six Pieces for 4 hands (with Lilya Zilberstein) and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite (with Mirabela Dina), transcribed by the late Nicolas Economou. Brahms dominates the second disc. The Sonata in F Minor (with Zilberstein again), better known in its piano quintet guise and the Haydn Variations (with Polina Leschchenko) sound almost as colourful on two pianos. The rarity is Rikuya Terashima’s arrangement of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, where Argerich and an equally driven Yefim Bronfman cook up a storm. One simply does not miss the orchestra here.

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