Friday, 4 September 2009

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2009)

North Carolina Symphony
Grant Llewelyn, Conductor
Rating ****1/2

Since the age of George Gershwin, many American composers have attempted to marry jazz, popular idioms and pop culture with concert music, with varying degrees of success. Leonard Bernstein, who conducted and proselytised his own music, was the loudest voice of all. This album reveals unexpected sides to certain American icons.
Renowned art-song composer Ned Rorem’s Lions (A Dream) features saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ quartet in one of his gayest and most sultry scores. Veteran film composer John Williams’ Escapades for alto sax adapts the soundtrack from the movie Catch Me If You Can into an engaging 3-movement suite. Michael Daugherty’s Sunset Strip is brass heaven with an ethnic twist peculiar to Los Angeles scene. The five “antique” dances of Christopher Rouse’s Friandises (French for bits or morsels) idiomatically mixes 20th century techniques with some hit tunes from the past. The North Carolina Symphony is an excellent orchestra with a totally with-it brass section, and they sound like having a real blast.

MARTINU Symphonies
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Chandos 10316 (3 CDs)
Rating ****1/2

With all attention to Haydn and Mendelssohn in 2009, one may be excused for forgetting this is also an anniversary year for Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959). Born in a town bell-tower, his music was anything but insular. The well-travelled Bohemian absorbed influences of his homeland, Paris and America, developing an eclectic style that is pleasing to the ear. His six symphonies are relatively late works, dating from 1942 to 1953. Subtly adopting folk and jazz elements, and characterised by big gestures, exuberant rhythms and kinetic energy, his style is unique and almost unmistakable.

The first two symphonies are the lightest, appropriate starting points for this cycle. Symphony No.3 is dissonant and urgent, reflecting anxieties over the Second World War. The optimistic Symphony No.5 looks forward to the minimalist style of John Adams. Its successor titled Symphonic Fantasies and Symphony No.4 are arguably the two best of the half-dozen, a summation of Martinu’s luscious orchestration and art. These life-affirming performances conducted by the late Scot Bryden Thomson are well worth exploring.

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