Friday, 21 May 2010

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, May 2010)

BEETHOVEN Cello Sonatas (Complete)
Decca 889 9119 (2CDs)

Beethoven composed only five sonatas for the cello and piano, but these spanned the three different periods of his creative output. These are highly original works without precedent in the repertoire. The early pair of Op.5 sonatas are in two movements each; the first is preceded by a slow introduction, a nod to earlier baroque forms. This architecture is repeated in the late C major Sonata (Op.102 No.1), and the threesome is housed in the first disc. The “middle period” A major (Op.69) and final D minor Sonata (Op.102 No.2), slightly longer essays, come on a second disc.

The duo of Chinese-Australian cellist Li-Wei Qin and Filipino pianist Albert Tiu, both resident in Singapore at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, respond with vigour and brio, breathing life into these scores. Qin’s tone is voluminous and breathtaking, while Tiu’s exacting piano partnership comes through with great immediacy and clarity. With superb recorded sound, this set (which retails for the price of one disc) deserves to happily sit alongside celebrated versions by Rostropovich, Maisky and Yo-Yo Ma.

SCRIABIN Piano Works
Naxos 8.570412

Towards The Flame is the unofficial title of this anthology of piano music by the Russian mystic composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), chronologically tracing his evolution from ardent Romantic to raving modernist. The contrasts could not have been more stark, beginning with two early waltzes (Op.1 and Op. posthumous) which betray Chopin’s influence and salon pretensions. Becoming more adventurous with harmonies and dynamics, his Polonaise (Op.21) and Fantasy (Op.28) break free from social niceties.

Some of the shorter pieces are titled Poems, some with fanciful descriptions. Tragic Poem (Op.34) is restless while Satanic Poem (Op.36) is a ironic portrait of masked hypocrisy. The works get weirder and more enigmatic by the track, culminating in the eponymous Vers La Flamme (Towards The Flame), an obsessive single-themed number that splutters, sizzles and sears like a Roman candle. One writer described this as Scriabin’s vision of the nuclear bomb. The elegant American-trained Chinese pianist Xiayin Wang has the full measure of Scriabin’s neuroses and febrile flailings, with the vividly recorded sound and her personal programme notes as definite plusses.

EMI Classics 6073672 (3CDs)

Chamber music festivals bring together musicians from all around the globe, often to play music not regularly heard in concert halls. These highlights from the 2009 Lugano Festival present some rarities, such as Mendelssohn’s precocious Piano Sextet (written when he was just 15), Glinka’s Grand Sextet (a jolly if un-nationalistic work) Ernest Bloch’s austere First Piano Quintet and Bartok’s elusive Second Violin Sonata. Performed before a “live” audience, there is an immediacy and frisson usually absent in studio recordings.

The chief instigator here is super-pianist Martha Argerich, who stars in no less than 80 minutes of music including the scintillating solo in Manuel de Falla’s sultry piano concerto Nights In The Gardens Of Spain (Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Alexander Vedernikov). She also partners a host of rising talents in Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces Op.88 (with the Capuçon sibs) for piano trio, Chopin’s Introduction & Polonaise Brillante Op.3 (with cellist Gautier Capuçon), and piano duets - excerpts from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with newcomer Cristina Marton) and Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy (with Mauricio Vallina). A very enjoyable three and a half hours that passes all too quickly.

Pianists for chamber works:
Khatia Buniatishvili (Mendelssohn & Bartok)
Polina Leschenko (Glinka)
Lilya Zilberstein (Bloch)

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