Friday, 8 January 2010

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, January 2010)

MOZART Violin Sonatas K.301-306
Canary Classics CC01
Rating ****1/2

The violin sonatas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were designated as sonatas for piano with violin accompaniment. The composer, who was adept in both instruments, often referred to them as duets. For much of the music, the violin doubles what the piano is already playing although he does allow some degree of independence. The grouping of six such sonatas in a single opus from 1778 was common at the time, and this half dozen make for very pleasurable listening.

The best known of these is the Sonata in E minor (K.304), which displays a palpable pathos, a reaction to his mother’s miserable demise in Paris. It is refreshing to witness Gil Shaham so comfortable from his usual virtuosic persona, partnering his excellent pianist sister Orli in music that is liberating as it is relaxing.
Simply CD 046 (4CDs)
Rating ****1/2

This super-budget anthology of the music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is well-balanced if not comprehensive. The first disc houses his greatest orchestral works, including La Mer (The Sea), the three impressionistic Nocturnes, Prelude to The Afternoon Of The Fawn and two Ravel orchestral transcriptions. The French and Japanese orchestras from Lyons and Tokyo give close to excellent performances.

The next two discs cover Debussy’s most representative piano music – all 24 Préludes, six Images, Children’s Corner Suite, Suite Bergamasque (including Clair de lune) and shorter pieces. The pianists read like a Who’s Who of Debussy playing, including Frenchmen Michel Beroff, Jacques Rouvier and Alain Plaines. The final disc is devoted to chamber music both great and obscure. The rarity is an early Piano Trio in G minor, influenced by Fauré, Saint-Saëns and the Belle Epoque. The String Quartet (from the Carmina Quartet) and Violin Sonata (with Chee Yun) leave one without doubt of Debussy’s greatness. At under $20, this collection picks itself.

CECILIA BARTOLI, Mezzo-soprano
Il Giardino Armonico
Decca 478 1521
Rating *****

Forget the bizarre cover art grafting Cecilia Bartoli’s head onto a marble statue of a nude male. It’s ridiculous but the music, all written for the castrati (young men surgically emasculated to retain their high voices), is revelatory. There is a short bonus CD with three established castrati classics – including Handel’s Ombra mai fu (better known as his Largo) – but it is the main disc with 11 world premiere recordings that is the prize. There are five arias by Neapolitan Nicola Porpora (1680-1768), the great vocal teacher who taught Farinelli and Haydn. His 10-minute long Parto, ti lascio, O cara is a portrait of beauty and restraint, contrasted with mellifluous nightingale imitations of Usignolo sventurato, and the quickfire raves in In braccio a mille furie.

His rival Leonardo Vinci (1696-1730) is not outdone in Chi temea giove regnante, Berenice’s fiery aria of thunder and lightning, with orchestral sound effects to match. There are no castrati alive today, only countertenors who use falsetto voices, but they are no match for mezzo-soprano Bartoli’s natural vocal range, stunning coloratura runs and amazing athleticism, which have to be heard to be believed. The handsomely produced album also houses an encyclopaedia on the castrato phenomenon, including pictures of nasty ancient surgical instruments, graphically explaining the title Sacrificium. Ouch!

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