Friday, 3 July 2009

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, June-July 2009)

Hyperion 67686
Rating *****

Crafting a piano recital is a special art which risks being lost, mostly due to contemporary audiences favouring the spectacular over the subtle and sublime. Thank goodness for pianists like Stephen Hough, whose exemplary taste is matched by his adventurous programming. This simply-titled disc features two mini-recitals, one “serious” and one “light” for contrasts.

The first couples Mendelssohn’s masterly Variations Serieuses with Beethoven’s last Sonata in C minor (Op.111), which itself comprises a great set of variations in its final movement. Hough’s view is a journey of defiance, wonder and ultimately autumnal consolation. The second recital is a celebration of waltzes, from Weber’s deceptively tricky Invitation to the Dance, through the Gallic sensibilities of Chopin and several French composers, and the infernal rhythms of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No.1. His naughty-but-nice encore? A transcription of The Waltzing Matilda, never a waltz in its original form, but now attaining respectability finally!

LIGETI Piano Music
BIS 1683/84 (2CDs)

Rating ****1/2

The piano music of the late Hungarian György Ligeti (1923-2006) has become all the rage thanks to his 19 Études being regularly played in international piano competitions and recitals. Composed in three books between 1985 and 2001, these are the late 20th century counterparts of Chopin, Liszt and Debussy studies. Fanciful titles (translated from French) like Autumn in Warsaw, Sorceror’s Apprentice, and Devil’s Staircase belie a fiendish difficulty, and the endurance required in mastering them. Their mechanistic repetitive patterns, massive discords and interweaving textures provide for a spellbinding listen, albeit in small doses.

The second disc includes the 11 short movements of Musica Ricercata (1951-53), arguably Ligeti’s finest piano work, and pieces for 4 hands and 2 pianos, with overdubbing. Here, Swedish neuroscientist turned keyboard virtuoso Fredrik Ullen plays both parts. The early music recalls the folk-like nationalistic influence of Bartok and Kodaly, but Ligeti’s fiercely independent and strident voice shines through. Followers of 20th century pianism need not hesitate.

TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No.1
MEDTNER Piano Concerto No.1

Sao Paulo Symphony / John Neschling
Rating *****

It is a mystery why the piano concertos of Russian Romantic composer Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) are not more regularly performed or recorded. Being phenomenally demanding and the unfair reputation as a poor man’s Rachmaninov do not encourage many pianists to learn them. Medtner owes a debt of influence to Brahms; his themes, architecture of form and development are more Teutonic than Russian. The opening theme of the sprawling First Piano Concerto, an inversion of its counterpart in Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, provides a clue. The 35-minute work unfolds majestically in one movement, aided by young Russian Yevgeny Sudbin’s grandiloquent and scintillating pianism. Tchaikovsky’s warhorse First Piano Concerto – performed with equal gusto – is thrown in to sweeten the deal. If such convincing advocacy does not win friends for Medtner, nothing will.

CHOPIN 24 Préludes / Sonata No.3
Onyx Classics 4036
Rating ****1/2

The Russian pianist Nikolai Demidenko is one of those artists who does not attempt something unless it can be done differently. This applies to the 24 Préludes (Op.28) of Chopin, composed during a troubled period of his relationship with the cross-dressing lady writer George Sand. Eschewing brilliance for its own sake, he takes a world-weary view, especially with the slower numbers. Rarely has the D flat major Raindrop Prélude sounded this tragic, its mournful tolling of bells far overshadowing its trite meteorological nickname. A sense of vehemence occupies the virtuosic B flat minor and final D minor Préludes, and nothing sounds superficial.

The popular Third Sonata follows in this thread, and there is no ecstatic joy that one expects in the thrilling finale. The measured pacing in certain parts contains something more profound than that. What secrets Demidenko and his Fazioli piano divulge in this revelatory recording is anybody’s guess.

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