Saturday, 28 November 2009

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, November 2009)

Brilliant Classics 9228 (5 CDs)

This modest box-set attempts to encompass a century’s worth of keyboard greats in just five discs – an impossible task, made worse by not having any sleeve notes of any sort. The earliest of 22 pianists featured is Scotsman Frederic Lamond (1868-1948), a student of Franz Liszt who performs his master’s Liebestraum No.3 and Un sospiro. The latest is Russian Nikolai Lugansky (born 1972), one of four living pianists, who frankly does not belong in such august company yet. In between there are some truly great performances, including Serge Rachmaninov in Schumann’s Carnaval, Dinu Lipatti partnering Herbert von Karajan in Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and Benno Moiseiwitsch’s magisterial take on Liszt’s mighty transcription of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture.

There are some oddities; Claudio Arrau barnstorming convincingly in Balakirev’s Islamey (a 1928 recording), Alfred Brendel playing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 (from 1968) and a precocious 16-year-old Martha Argerich’s winning performances of Liszt and Prokofiev at the Busoni International Piano Competition. A mixed bag in reality, but there are more gems than duds.

20th Century Classics
EMI Classics 2376862 (2CDs)

If the name of Russsian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) still engenders trepidation in listeners, allow Sarah Chang, Han-Na Chang, Sir Simon Rattle and Mariss Janssons to address that phobia in this super-budget anthology. Despite a penchant for the ironic and morbid, a by-product of the Stalinist years, Shostakovich was a genuine and deeply expressive communicator. His Symphony No.1, a teenage effort, never loses its witty fervour on repeated listenings. Three of his concertos are included; Violin Concerto No.1 and Cello Concerto No.1 share a common dark humour topped with searing virtuosity (from the Korean-American Changs), while the ebullient light-hearted Piano Concerto No.2 (with the late John Ogdon) fizzes like soda pop.

The most serious item here is String Quartet No.8 (from Canada’s St Lawrence Quartet) Shostakovich’s most celebrated piece of chamber music and semi-autobiographical tribute to the victims of oppression including himself. At the opposite pole lie his Jazz Suite No.1 and Tahiti Trot, the latter a most outlandish transcription of Tea For Two. This was his mechanism of keeping sane in a society gone all potty. Shall we dance?

Cello Classics 1022

The voice of the cello is a most haunting one, a fact not lost to composers from Bach to the present day. This hour-long album is a cross-section of unaccompanied cello music from the second half of the 20th century, beginning with Sonatas by avant-garde composers Hungarian György Ligeti and American George Crumb in their earlier years. Both works were influenced by Kodaly and Bartok, which make them eminently listenable – no hair-pulling scrapes for their own sake. Even Paul Hindemith’s Sonata (Op.25 No.3) sounds aggressively spiky by comparison. The Latvian Peteris Vasks’ Das Buch alternates between violence and contemplation, bringing the human voice into the mix, while Italian Giovanni Solima’s Alone makes for a stunning encore.

Singaporean Ho Chee Kong’s recently premiered Tembusu Evenings is the icing on the cake. It is an evocative 5-movement suite imbued with an Asian aroma, distinctive yet subtle, laden with what the composer describes as “misty memories to last several lifetimes”. Shanghai-born cellist Qin Li-Wei is a poet of the bow par excellence, for whom virtuosity is but a servant to ultimate expression.

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