Friday, 25 September 2009

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2009)

CHOPIN Complete Works
Hyperion 44351/66 (16 CDs)
Rating ****1/2

The piano is central to every piece of music that Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) wrote, and this handy box-set by American pianist Garrick Ohlsson, winner of the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition, includes every single note. Virtually all his solo piano music is heard regularly these days, but the odds and ends including an enjoyable piano trio, small body of cello music, Polish songs and a solitary flute work remain rarities. Are these worth listening to? Yes, that is because Chopin – like Mozart - is one of those sensitive souls for whom beauty is an essential and little is ever routine.

Ohlsson also marks himself as Chopin interpreter par excellence, even if aficionados may already have their personal favourites like Argerich (in the Préludes), Perahia (Études), Pires (Nocturnes), Lipatti (Waltzes), Zimerman (Concertos) and Rubinstein (in pretty much everything else). The recordings date mostly from the 1990s, originally issued by the now-defunct Arabesque label. The singular biggest draw here is its price; $99.95 at HMV works out to about $6 a disc or under 9 cents per minute of unalloyed pleasure. Hard to resist?
Harmonia Mundi 902012

Rating ****1/2

Two 20th century French icons Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) are united on this disc with the common goal of reviving French values in music. What may these be? For starters, it is the avoidance of dense counterpoint as espoused by the Germans, and steering clear of Wagner’s “modernism”. Secondly, a conscious return to the dance-forms of an earlier age, represented by the likes of Couperin and Rameau.

Debussy’s Cello Sonata (1915) is the epitome of conciseness and clarity, all 11-minutes of it. Its middle movement Serenade is an evocation of evening minstrels and midnight trysts. Poulenc’s Cello Sonata (1948) joyously espouses the concept of “exquisite bad music”, one that does not take itself too seriously. Its third movement is entitled Ballabile, which literally means “danceable”; it is a gay, unpretentious and light-hearted romp. This album also includes Debussy’s “slower than slow” waltz La plus que lente, Poulenc’s Suite Francaise (based on 16th century dances) and two shorter pieces. Totally delectable.
JOSEF SUK Asrael Symphony
Malaysian Philharmonic
Claus Peter Flor, Conductor

Rating *****

The Czech composer Josef Suk (1874-1935) is best known as the son-in-law of Antonin Dvorak and grandfather of the great violinist of the same name. His popular Serenade for Strings has been making its rounds, but the undisputed masterpiece is the 5-movement symphony Asrael of 1906. Named after the Islamic “Angel of Death”, it was borne of tragic circumstances; both Suk’s young wife and Dvorak had died within a year of each other.

Running just over an hour, its musical language is influenced by Wagner and owes a debt to Mahler and Richard Strauss, while leaving Dvorak’s folksy symphonies in its wake. The quiet opening looks forward to Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony, while the tense and eventful scherzo predicts Prokofiev and Hollywood composers. Those seeking a sumptuously orchestrated canvas to wallow in, look no further. The Malaysian Philharmonic, conducted by its new Music Director in their first recording together, is on sizzling form.

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