Friday, 13 November 2009

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, November 2009)

BARTOK Piano Concertos No.1 & 2
Chicago Symphony / CLAUDIO ABBADO
Deutsche Grammophon 477 6353

The great Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) wrote three piano concertos, of which the Third from his last year remains the most popular and accessible. Its two “ugly sisters” are far less often programmed because of the extreme demands on performers and audience. The First (1926) is particularly aggressive, the musical equivalent of a knuckle duster. Virtually a relentless parade of bare octaves and grinding chords, it is also a rhythmic nightmare for the orchestra. The Second (1931) is arguably the greatest of the three. A Stravinskyan opening theme, Bach-like neoclassical elements and Bartok’s own patented “night music” effects make this a most fascinating work.

Italian virtuoso Maurizio Pollini’s legendary 1977 recording has yet to be bettered, in terms of rapier-keen incisiveness and sonic projection. The reward for sitting through 50 minutes of undiluted musical violence is Bartok’s Two Portraits (with violinist Shlomo Mintz and the London Symphony) A work related to his First Violin Concerto, a lyrical theme takes on a reverse-Cinderella transformation – from idealised to grotesque. As always, Bartok rarely disappoints.
The Great Recordings
EMI Classics 2679692 (10 CDs)

The Berlin-born composer, pianist and conductor André Previn celebrated his 80th birthday this year. He is probably best remembered for his stint at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra (from 1971 to 1980), where he helped make classical music accessible with a touch of Hollywood glamour. This budget-priced box-set contains blockbuster works he proselytised before they became chic like Messiaen’s 10-movement Turangalila, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony (one of the first complete recordings) and Shostakovich’s cataclysmic Eighth Symphony.

A healthy dose of Musica Brittanica in Holst’s The Planets, Walton Belshazzar’s Feast and Elgar’s Enigma Variations also helped cement his popularity. Has there been a more satisfying Carl Orff Carmina Burana than Previn’s 1974 recording? His prowess as a pianist is also amply displayed in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto. At super-budget-price, this selection is practically self-recommending.

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