Monday, 28 June 2010

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, June 2010)



Deutsche Grammophon 477 8795


Following the critical success of her début recording, Yuja Wang’s sophomore CD is even better. The repertoire is pure virtuoso fodder from the competition mill, but she is on top of everything. In Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, Wang matches Maurizio Pollini’s famous 1970s recording for sheer incisiveness, and even tops it with a buoyancy and windswept lightness that defies belief. Taking certain liberties in phrasing and textures, she makes this reading very much her own. Like the legendary Michelangeli and Earl Wild, she merges both books of Brahms’ fearsome Paganini Variations and also reorders some of the sequences. With crystal clarity and faultless control, the results are stunning. Ravel’s sweeping La Valse, with its monstrous chords and decadent glissandi, completes the picture. Two little Scarlatti sonatas, played with delicacy and insight, demonstrate an all-rounded musicality. Be prepared to be blown away.



Sony Classical 88697568872

Rating *****

The Russian arch-virtuoso Arcadi Volodos is without doubt one of the most compelling pianists today. This 2009 recital in the Golden Hall of Vienna’s Musikverein confirms that he is the true successor Russian icons like Horowitz, Richter and Gilels. Seldom have musical judgment, tonal allure and digital dexterity been better aligned. His programming is also unusual, beginning with a handful of Scriabin miniatures (Préludes and dances), whetting the palate before the feverish intensity of the Russian mystic’s Seventh SonataWhite Mass”. Then come the variegated leaves from Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and Schumann’s Forest Scenes, all delivered with delicious wit and rare insight. In Liszt’s barnstorming Dante Sonata, he does a Horowitz by adding his own outrageous embellishments. Artistic licence or self-indulgent hubris? At any rate, this artist demands to be heard.

CHOPIN 200th Anniversary Edition

EMI Classics 9671172 (16 CDs)


Every work that Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) wrote included the piano. Despite the ambitious title, this is a mixed bag including chamber music and songs from 20 different pianists dating between 1955 and 2009. The sound quality is variable but mostly acceptable. The lion’s share of performances come from American Garrick Ohlsson, the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition winner, who is excellent in the Piano Concertos, Nocturnes, Préludes and Polonaises (including those written as a child and teenager). Also worth listening to are the 58 Mazurkas and several dances from the late great Ronald Smith, and Andrei Gavrilov’s blistering account of the Études.

Not all Chopin is great music; his early First Sonata (Op.4) is derivative despite an ardent reading from Leif Ove Andsnes. And does anyone really care about his Souvenir de Paganini, short variations on Carnival of Venice, even if it is played by Daniel Barenboim? The newest tracks are by the youngest pianist, 17-year-old Briton Benjamin Grosvenor, who performs Chopin’s miscellany – mostly obscure short pieces and shavings from a master’s workbench – with much sympathy. Hear him in more substantial fare at this year’s Piano Festival.




Naxos 8.572240


This is a very accessible anthology of 20th century repertoire for the clarinet, which has unwittingly become a memorial for jazz legend Sir John Dankworth (1927-2010), the husband of Dame Cleo Lane. His Suite For Emma in five dance movements, written for Johnson, straddle between classical and popular/jazz forms. These are the lightest pieces here with the exception of Picture Of Jeanie, a scored improvisation of Stephen Foster’s Jeanie With Her Light Brown Hair.

The music takes on a slightly more serious tone with Aaron Copland’s early Nocturne (1926, originally for violin) and Clarinet Sonata (1943) which skilfully combine the blues with his more structured creations. Leonard Bernstein’s first published work was his Clarinet Sonata (1942), a witty 2-movement work that pays tribute to his teacher Paul Hindemith and mentor Copland. Former BBC Young Musician of the Year Johnson performs with disarming ease and fervour. Warmly recommended.

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