Monday, 29 March 2010

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, March 2010)

BRUCH Violin Concerto No.1
BRAHMS Violin Concerto
Sarah Chang, Violin
Dresdner Philharmonic / Kurt Masur
EMI Classics 9670042

The Korean-American Sarah Chang looks likely to be one of those violinists – like Heifetz, Oistrakh, Menuhin and Perlman before her – who is going to record every major concerto in the repertory. She is accomplishing this in a very steady manner, beginning with the Tchaikovsky concerto in 1993 (when she was just 12), and now scaling the lofty Teutonic masterpieces of Bruch and Brahms. This is a most logical coupling, given that both concertos were inspired by the Hungarian-born virtuoso Joseph Joachim.

Both have meaty first movements, balanced by slow movements filled with tender yearnings, and closing with gypsy-like élan. It is almost a given that Chang’s versions are predictably good, a brilliant technique allied by perfect intonation and much expressiveness all round. Her German partners also provide first-rate support; this is after all their heritage. What next for young Sarah? The pinnacle of Beethoven now looks a very inviting prospect indeed.

BARBER Violin Concerto
Sao Paulo Symphony / John Neschling

This sensible coupling presents two of the most popular and regularly programmed 20th century American violin concertos. Samuel Barber’s concerto (1939) is delightfully top-heavy, two lyrical slow movements followed by a brief but hellishly difficult finale. The latter was so demanding as to completely baffle its original dedicatee. Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (1954), inspired by Plato’s Symposium and consisting of five conjoined movements, reveals an appealing blend of melody and rhythmic exuberance. West Side Story was to be his next work, but both share a distinct imprimatur of the same master. The Ukrainian-Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman has both the technique and tonal allure to pull it off. The Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch’s soulful Baal Shem (Three Pictures of Chassidic Life) in its orchestral guise, makes for a generous bonus.
SCHUBERT Winterreise
Harmonia Mundi 907484

Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey), composed in 1827, just one year before his premature demise, is a bleak metaphorical journey into oblivion. Its 24 song settings of poems by Wilhelm Müller reflect Schubert’s own disappointments in life, being forever luckless in love and ravaged by syphilis. The words are chilling in any language, and the landscape described forbidding. To this, British tenor Mark Padmore adds a dimension of gravitas usually associated with baritones and basses. His dark gravel-like vocal textures are well suited in the portrayal of grizzled despondency.

The first song Gute Nacht (Good Night) is a farewell to love, a walk into the darkness. While it retains slivers of hope, these are progressively dashed. In Die Post (The Post), the protagonist imagines a letter from his sweetheart arriving, but it is only his frenzied heart beating. Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope) hangs like a withered leaf buffeted by the wind, and Im Dorfe (In The Village), growling dogs leave him sleepless with nothing to dream about. By the final song Der Leiermann (The Hurdy Gurdy Man), desolation is complete, its banal drones reduced to pitiful bleats. Has there been a more poignant representation of a slow death? Or a greater song cycle than this?

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