Sunday, 27 December 2009

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, December 2009)

PROKOFIEV Piano Concertos No.2 & 3
Philharmonia Orchestra / VLADIMIR ASHKENAZY
EMI Classics 264536 2
Rating *****

Sergei Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto in G minor (Op.16) occupies a similar position today as Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto about four decades ago. Once imagined to be impossible to play, more pianists have begun to take on its thorny challenges. Now looking to surpass the popular Third Piano Concerto (op.26), two of three medallists at the 2009 Van Cliburn Piano Competition chose to perform it at the finals. Its appeal is obvious; typically brooding Russian melancholy meets virtuoso high-jinks, including an outsized 1st movement cadenza that even tops Rachmaninov, and a whirlwind scherzo that looks back to the finale of Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata.

In four movements backed with lush orchestration, here is the iconoclast Prokofiev sounding most like Rachmaninov, yet without losing his identity. Vladimir Ashkenazy gave its most famous recording in the 1970s but now returns to accompany the equally iconic Evgeny Kissin. Together they cook up a feast which also includes Kissin’s third recording of the Prokofiev Third Concerto. Snap this one as soon as you find it.
Vienna Philharmonic / DANIEL BARENBOIM
Decca 478 1133
Rating ****1/2

This was Daniel Barenboim’s début at Vienna’s annual Silvesterkonzert, where tickets go for no less than 715 Euros, if one is lucky enough. As a tribute to Haydn (1732-1809) on his anniversary year, the finale of the Farewell Symphony (composed in the Hungarian court of Esterhaza) was performed as the last item of the concert. The sight of musicians walking out in groups, in an 18th century version of industrial action, triggered audible laughter from the audience. The Magyar connection had begun earlier with the Overture, Entrance March and Treasure Waltz from Johann Strauss the Younger’s operetta The Gypsy Baron, and climaxed with the fast polka Hurrah For Hungary!

Barenboim’s invaluable work with the Palestinian-Israeli West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (surely a more deserving Nobel Peace Prize if any) also gets a nod in the Arabian-flavoured waltz Fairy Tales from the Orient. He also added a plea for “human justice in the Middle East” in his very brief speech. The more popular numbers include Roses From The South, Music of the Spheres (by brother Josef Strauss), not forgetting the obligatory Blue Danube and clap-along for the Radetzky March. Much is old wine in old bottles, but who really cares?
Decca 478 1149 (35 CDs)
Rating ****1/2

A violin lover’s answer to last year’s 50-CD Piano Masterworks box-set, this looks to be a better organised anthology. The works are arranged alphabetically by composer, from Bach to Vivaldi, with two discs of favourite encores. Its value comes from mining the back catalogue, presenting to new listeners the glories of Arthur Grumiaux and Henryk Szeryng. Oldies will enjoy reliving the revered Belgian’s view of the Bach Sonatas for violin and harpsichord, Beethoven Violin Sonatas (with Clara Haskil, piano) and Mozart Violin Concertos. His sweet and ingratiating tone is one for the ages. From the Pole who settled in Mexico, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Romances, Mozart’s Violin Sonatas (with Ingrid Haebler), Kreisler’s lollipops and two Paganini concertos make for pleasurable listening.

From the younger fiddlers, Leila Josefowicz scores with concertos by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Prokofiev and Glazunov, while Akiko Suwanai does the honours for Bruch, Dvorak and Sarasate. Joshua Bell appears in two discs, crafting his own cadenza for the Brahms Violin Concerto, unearthing the rarely heard Schumann concerto, and glamourising those by 20th century icons Barber and Walton. Some nostalgics will swear by Ruggiero Ricci (Paganini Caprices), Salvatore Accardo (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons), Kyung Wha Chung (Elgar, Saint-Saëns and Bartok concertos) and Gidon Kremer (unaccompanied Bach and concertos), and who could blame them? Make sure your stocking is a wide one, for this comes close to an ultimate Christmas gift.

No comments: