Friday, 1 October 2010

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, October 2010)

YORK BOWEN Piano Sonatas
Hyperion 67751/2 (2CDs)

The London-born pianist-composer York Bowen (1884-1961) has been hailed as “The English Rachmaninov”. This moniker, while convenient and attractive, is unfair to both composers just because both were unapologetic Romantics who shunned modern trends while living well into the last century. Bowen’s summer sunshine and typically British humour is a world apart from Rachmaninov’s morose, wintry gloom. His six piano sonatas, eclectic and virtuosic, offer enjoyable listening. The first three sonatas (receiving first performances here) bear influences from the Norwegian Edvard Grieg, and driven by the dramatic note-spinning of Tchaikovsky.

Bowen comes more into his own in the latter three sonatas, where similarities with Rachmaninov become more apparent. Flowing melody, crashing chords and ecstatic climaxes are Bowen’s forte, with brilliant coruscating finales that recall his most famous piano work bar none, the Toccata Op.155. The young British pianist Danny Driver makes the best possible cases for these underrated works, which deserve to be heard.

Songs & Piano Pieces
Deutsche Grammophon 477 6633

Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919) is best known for his one-act hit opera I Pagliacci. His other operas, including a La Bohème which at one time rivalled Puccini’s, are far less well-known. His symphonic poem for tenor and orchestra La nuit de Mai (May Night) is a positive rarity.

This rambling 40 minute work, based on poetry by Alfred de Musset, is a dialogue between a poet and his muse in 12 movements. The great Spanish tenor Placido Domingo sings the poet, answered by the Muse voiced by long stretches of Verdi-like orchestral music. Despite pushing 70, his voice is as youthful as ever, bringing vitality to a piece that could easily have floundered on its own weighty ambitions. The Bologna Communal Theatre Orchestra led by Alberto Veronesi provided splendid support.

In addition, Domingo sings five very short but attractive songs in French and Italian, ably accompanied by Lang Lang in his final recording for DG. The Chinese phenom has two short solos, Barcarola Veneziana and Valse Mignonne, very slight and inconsequential stuff, touched with his patented charm. A curiosity but recommended for the curious voice-lover in all of us.

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