Sunday, 7 March 2010

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, February - March 2010)

Hyperion 67803

The influence of Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) on the piano’s literature and social history is inestimable. More than defining the instrument per se, his inimitable brand of musical poetry encompasses both amateur and virtuoso techniques, and is easily enjoyed by all. This enticing anthology of mostly obscure spin-offs includes emulations and imitations of his elegant style – seamless bel canto (Franz Bendel’s Hommage à Chopin, Eduard Napravnik’s Notturno), Polish mazurka rhythms (Tchaikovsky, Lennox Berkeley), variations of popular melodies and ingenious new looks at old material.

The longest work is Spaniard Federico Mompou’s Variations on the simple A major Prélude (Op.28 No.7), which sounds like a highly-skilled cocktail pianist’s take with interesting harmonies and blue notes galore. Next comes Ferruccio Busoni’s Variations on the C minor Prélude (Op.28 No.20), a veritable compendium which includes a lilting waltz and the inevitable fugue. The most exotic: Brazilian Villa-Lobos’ Hommage à Chopin, virtually Frederic in the jungle. The most virtuosic: Balakirev’s Impromptu that combines two further contrasting Préludes. British pianist Jonathan Plowright has the chops and nuances to make everything sound effortless and fresh.

MEDTNER Piano Concerto No.2
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No.4
North Carolina Symphony / Grant Llewelyn

Why hasn’t any other pianist thought of this most logical coupling of Russian piano concertos? After all, Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) and Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) were great friends and dedicated these works to each other. Medtner’s Second Concerto in C minor was arguably his greatest work, one imbued with the virtuosic and tragic-dramatic gestures of late Romantic Russian pianism. He certainly wasn’t a Rachmaninov clone, but a more subtle individual who was less prone to wearing heart-on-sleeve. A few listens of this will convince he was probably the greater of the two composers.

Rachmaninov’s Fourth Concerto in G minor (Op.40) is far better known in its revised form. Yevgeny Sudbin however chooses to perform an earlier 1926 version, which includes almost 5 minutes of unfamiliar music. Were Rachmaninov’s final, definitive and grittier thoughts better? Probably, but this more rambling account reveals his initial creative impulses, which the young Russian pianist captures with much eloquence and persuasiveness. As an encore, Sudbin’s transcription of the Rachmaninov song Floods Of Spring is a gem. Highly recommended.

SCHUMANN Cello Music
Hyperion 67661
While the world is celebrating the Chopin bicentenary, one should not ignore that of his close contemporary and supporter Robert Schumann (1810-1856), who also had a tragically short but eventful life. Flowing lyricism punctuated by passionate outbursts and rhythmic exuberance describe his music, which this recording supplies abundantly. Ironically only one work, Five Pieces In Folk Style (Op.102), was originally conceived for cello. The popular Fantasy Pieces (Op.73), Romances (Op.94) and Adagio & Allegro (Op.70) were written for clarinet, oboe and horn respectively. These lovely miniatures from 1849 however translate remarkably well for the mellow cello.

British cellist Steven Isserlis has himself adapted the rarely heard Third Violin Sonata (1853), Schumann’ last completed work before his descent into terminal schizophrenia, for his instrument. It is a 20-minute-long rapturous work which recalls the languorous beauty of his Cello Concerto in A minor. It does not take much to enjoy this excellent album.

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