Friday, 8 May 2009

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, May 2009)

HAYDN Symphonies No.6,7 & 8
Freiburger Barockorchester
Harmonia Mundi 2961767
Rating *****

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the so-called “Father of the Symphony”, did not invent the genre but popularised it, firmly establishing it as the leading vehicle of expression in the Classical and Romantic eras. These three symphonies of 1761, composed during his first year of service in the Esterhazy household, are programmatic in character. Depicting the times of the day – Morning, Noon and Evening – it was supposed to be Haydn’s answer to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. In truth, these sound like good old absolute music, with well-defined themes and development, not withstanding an attempt to simulate a storm (he was no Beethoven) in the final movement of Symphony No.8.

The compact Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (21 players) led by its leader violinist Petra Mullejans come as close to reliving Haydn’s Esterhaza band as possibly imagined, creating a forceful yet intimate sound. Judging by the efforts of flautist Karl Kaiser, that group must have had a supreme virtuoso of a flautist as well. This is the perfect antidote for all who imagined Haydn to be boring.

BRAHMS Hungarian Dances
Waltzes Op.39, Klavierstücke Op.76
Harmonia Mundi 902015
Rating ****1/2

Johannes Brahms originally wrote his 21 Hungarian Dances for piano duet (4 hands), having being an accompanist for a Hungarian gypsy violinist in his younger days. He later transcribed the first ten for two hands, thus taxing the amateur pianist with multitudes of notes far beyond average ability. French pianist Cedric Tiberghien more than amply supplies, finding a rare Magyar élan and exuberance in the Dances, which sparkle in his hands. The same applies for his 15 graceful Waltzes (Op.39), which require both litheness and agility over and above mere notes. More profound thoughts are plumbed in the rarely-played Eight Pieces or Klavierstücke Op.76 – comprising varied Capriccios and Intermezzos - which exhibit darker and introverted qualities. Again he delivers with an immediacy and trenchancy that is hard to resist.

BIS CD-1562
Rating *****

The idea of a record of short cello pieces for children is totally winning one. These are neither boring exercises nor music exam fodder, but encore-like bonbons that will charm and delight in a kiddie concert. The opening piece, Ludwig Lebell’s lovely Berceuse Orientale, requires the young cellist to play only on open strings. The pianist has far more notes, although easily accomplished on one hand. The pieces get progressively more advanced as the composers become more familiar; Boccherini’s beloved Minuet, Sibelius salon-like Lulu Waltz (just under 1 minute long), a pair of cradle songs by Fauré and Amy Beach, and Poulenc’s insouciant Serenade are plain delectable.

Some showmanship is afforded in the Bohemian David Popper’s Gavotte and the Spanish Gaspard Cassado’s Requiebros, both of whom were cello virtuosos. Hough and Isserlis include their own offerings; the former’s The Haunted House with narration from Simon Callow and musical special effects makes for engaging listening. The performers are old pros, but approach these miniatures with a wide-eyed innocence that is always refreshing.

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