Sunday, 13 June 2010

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, May - June 2010)


At Home With Friends

Sony Classical 88697554362


When you’re a superstar, as gifted and good looking as American violinist Joshua Bell, it isn’t hard to find many friends. This crossover collection sees Bell’s sumptuous violin partner a disparate assortment of artists (including Chris Botti, Kristin Chenoweth, Marvin Hamlisch and Dave Grusin among others) in an attic-full of musical styles. Is it still classical music when Sting sings John Dowland’s Come Again to Bell’s accompaniment? Or should purists gripe when sitarist Anoushka Shankar duets with Bell in her father’s Variant Moods? The two tracks that are strictly classical involve Sergei Rachmaninov, the romance O Cease Thy Singing (sung in English by baritone Nathan Gunn) and a 1928 recording of the great Russian pianist-composer in the slow movement of Edvard Grieg’s Third Violin Sonata in C minor. Modern recording technology has scrubbed off poor Fritz Kreisler (one of Rachmaninov’s most celebrated musical partners) and installed Bell in his place! Is that cheating? Breaking down ethnic, cultural and artistic barriers is what trans-genre collaboration is about, a sign of the times. So music lovers should not get too sniffy especially when the results are as enjoyable as this.

MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition

SCHUMANN Scenes from Childhood


EMI Classics 6983602


Pianists who survey Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s piano masterpiece Pictures at an Exhibition have two options: either play it straight as it was written, or embellish and amplify with carefully chosen extra notes. Like Vladimir Horowitz and Mikhail Pletnev before him, Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes opts for the latter, and is mostly successful. That is because Mussorgsky’s musical portrayal of his late friend Viktor Hartmann’s quirky sketches and designs – of gnomes, witches, glowing skulls and unhatched chicks - are never compromised. The additional chords, octave doublings and decorative touches by Andsnes are tasteful and do not bring attention to themselves, while the composer’s own monochrome visions retain their bleakness. Four shorter character pieces by Mussorgsky are included but the main filler is Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), a suitable pairing by way of 13 miniatures, including the famous Traumerei (Dreaming). Here, there are no personal contributions, just the musical representation of innocence and a simpler existence. Whether barnstorming or simply musing, Andsnes’ technique is impeccable, and this album is thoroughly recommendable.


100th Anniversary

EMI Classics 6872862 (2CDs)


In an age of rampant and unapologetic modernism, the American Samuel Barber (1910-1981) remained a steadfast upholder of tonality and the Romantic spirit. Little wonder that his compositions regularly turn up in concert programmes today. His No.1 hit is the Adagio for Strings, performed here with polish and conviction by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle. It is also fascinatingly heard within its original context, in the String Quartet (Op.11), played by the Endellion Quartet. His No.2 hit: the lyrical Violin Concerto, unusual because of its two slow movements followed by a brief quicksilver finale. American violinist Elmar Oliveira and the Saint Louis Symphony (conducted by Leonard Slatkin) do the honours. His No.3 hit: a tie between the rugged Piano Sonata, with British pianist Leon McCawley in fine form, and the gritty orchestral showpiece that is Medea’s Meditation & Dance Of Vengeance. A second disc includes his songs, instrumental and chamber music. Scratching beneath the surface, Barber’s music has far more to offer than mere melodies.



YO-YO MA, Cello


Sony Classical 88697 52192 2


It is not hard to enjoy the two piano trios of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). All the hallmarks of the Anglophilic German composer are here – flowing melody, literally “songs without words”, witty scherzos and scintillating piano passages that are floridly decorative. The First Trio in D minor (Op.49) is by far the more popular, but the Second Trio in C minor (Op.66) has much to offer. It is more melancholic and imbued with darker hues, which ultimately give way in the finale to the bright sunshine of the Old Hundredth Psalm, regularly sung in Protestant churches as the Doxology. Curiously, this is the first time that violin great Itzhak Perlman has collaborated in recording with the celebrated duo of Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. The results are as congenial as a meeting of old friends, with the requisite give and take that make chamber music exciting. Can we hope for more from this "million dollar trio"?

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