Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Naxos Recordings by Cho-Liang Lin: Review

Here are a couple of reviews of recordings by violinist Cho-Liang Lin on the Naxos label. The first appeared in The Straits Times (30 May 2008) and the second on The Flying Inkpot.

Naxos 8.570258 / Rating ****

The Vienna-born conductor Georg Tintner (1917-1999) is better remembered for his recorded cycle of Bruckner symphonies on the Naxos label. His little known original chamber compositions are now revealed for the first time on record. Youthful works completed before he turned 30, these dabbled with atonality but remain largely accessible. His possible influences: the Second Viennese School (Alban Berg in particular), prodigious film-music composer Erich Korngold and even virtuoso violinist Fritz Kreisler.

The most substantial work is a 25-minute Violin Sonata in four movements, which sounds modern on first acquaintance but retains substantial vestiges of Romantic sentimentalism. Finely crafted, it repays further listening. His Chopin Variations for piano (after the very brief Prelude in A major, Op.28 No.7) is witty and inventive while two funereal pieces – On the Death of a Friend and Trauermusik – uncannily foretell his tragic end by his own hand after being stricken by cancer. The high profile performers, both of Chinese descent, perform the music most sympathetically.

Double Concerto for Violin and Cello
Formosa Seasons for Violin and Strings
& FELIX FAN, Cello
Kansas City Symphony / MICHAEL STERN
Naxos 8.570221 / Rating ****

One could be forgiven for suspecting that Brahms and Vivaldi or Piazzolla had been ripped off, based on the titles of these concertos alone. But fear not, Taiwanese-born Eastman-trained Gordon Chin is a fine craftsman whose music can hold its own in the already crowded world of new compositions.

Chin’s idiom in both string concertos is tonal and accessible by 20th century standards, ranging from Waltonian wit and Bernsteinesque sense of pacing to the hair-pulling dissonances favoured by composers like Schnittke. Some parts could also pass off as well-written film music, in the manner of Bernard Hermann (think the score of Psycho, for example). All this may suggest formulaic eclecticism but Chin manages to make his music sound convincing, and definitely worth revisiting.

There isn’t much that is Chinese in the music. Only in the Double Concerto’s slow second movement, A Flowering Sacrifice, are there hints of Chin’s Chinese heritage – a powerful brooding lament with deftly placed portamenti and subtle use of percussion. Equally engaging is the third movement In Expectation, a nostalgic waltz reminiscent of sickly-sweet and demented “haunted house” music.

The Formosa Seasons were composed for Cho-Liang Lin as a companion to Vivaldi’s classic. In reality, they are as different as chalk and cheese. There are four poems (translated into English) to accompany each of the seasons, which begin with summer and close with the onset of spring. The music is more angular and spiky here than in the Double Concerto, but at 21 minutes, this engaging work may prove to be more programmable in the long run.

The Kansas City Symphony under Michael Stern (who definitely knows something about China, having followed his father Isaac in From Mao to Mozart) play well, and this enterprise benefits from having two excellent soloists on board.

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