Friday, 3 September 2010

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2010)

Piano Concertos
Orchestra of Opera North
Chandos 10509

Do we need yet another recording that couples the A minor Piano Concertos of Robert Schumann and Edvard Grieg? Not unless it has something new to say. British pianist Howard Shelley, who regularly conducts concertos from the keyboard, lays on a convincing argument for the tempos adopted for these warhorses. “Go with the flow” is his view, and the music takes on an added urgency which is quite refreshing. Some listeners will quibble about the “lack of breathing space” in the fast outer movements, but there is certainly no protractedness for the sake of profundity here.

With both concertos running under half an hour each (most pianists clock in at 32 minutes), there is enough time to pack in a third concerto – Camille Saint-SaĆ«ns’ Second Piano Concerto. Once described as “a journey from Bach to Offenbach”, the work bristles with virtuosic gestures and sparkles with champagne lightness. Shelley and the Leeds-based orchestra are every bit equal to its witty and quixotic demands. Recommended.

JUBILANT SYKES, Baritone with choirs
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra / MARIN ALSOP
Naxos 8.559622-23 (2CDs)

When Leonard Bernstein’s Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers was first performed at the inauguration of Washington D.C’s Kennedy Centre in 1971, it was panned for its eclecticism and low brow leanings. One critic likened it to a recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce. Heard from a distance of almost four decades, the 100-minute long work still sounds like a child of its time, from the era of the Vietnam War, Woodstock, Hair and LSD.

It attempts to encompass everything from liturgy to rock opera and high school musical, like a cross between his Chichester Psalms and West Side Story, but without the innocence and chic. It is nevertheless fun to listen to, with baritone Jubilant Sykes’ exuberant tour de force as the Celebrant, who questions his faith, has a meltdown and walks away from it all with the mantra “I don’t know”. The listener is left to ponder on Stephen Schwartz’s subversive and almost blasphemous text. The Credo, for example, is qualified with “I believe in God / But does God believe in me?” The pacifist and sceptic messages make this one of the most fascinating and politically incorrect works of the last half century.

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