Friday, 22 October 2010

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, October 2010)

CHOPIN Piano Concerto No.1
Twelve Études Op.10 / Berceuse
Fort Worth Symphony / JAMES CONLON
Harmonia Mundi 907547

History was made when 20-year-old Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii, who had been blind since birth, shared 1st prize at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009. These “live” recordings from the preliminary and final rounds captured something special - the triumph of the human spirit over handicap and adversity. Tsujii, who learnt his Chopin by ear with the help of a teacher, communicates with much urgency and immediacy. There is nothing that is mechanical or over-studied in his playing, even if his steadiness is at times unnerving.

In the concerto, he is attentively partnered by the Texan orchestra, and together they draw tumultuous applause from the audience. He whips off the Études, cruel finger-twisters even for the sighted, with a natural ease and stunning accuracy. Those who seek “perfection” will favour studio recordings of these works, but the spontaneity displayed here – in spite of some rough spots - is close to miraculous. One will already have favourites in Argerich, Pollini, Zimerman or Perahia, but this is worth keeping if only to remind us of the joy of being alive.

Onyx Classics 4047
This lovely album (subtitled Fours Hand & Two Hearts) celebrates the musical union of French pianist Pascal Rogé and his Indonesian-Japanese wife Ami Hakuno, who were married in 2009. Wedding photo shots have been reproduced in the booklet, but that should not distract from the quality music making. French fare, a Rogé specialty, is presented as light and intimate (Fauré’s Dolly Suite and Debussy’s Petite Suite), sometimes frothy and giddy (Saint-Saëns’ Wedding Cake Waltz and Poulenc’s La Embarquement Pour Cythere), but not without drama and well engineered chaos (Dukas’ Sorceror’s Apprentice and Ravel’s La Valse).

New to the catalogue is the World Premiere recording of the five movement Ami Suite by Japanese-American Paul Chihara (born 1939). Much in the spirit of the French, its dance and popular music-derived numbers, quoting innumerable sources such as Debussy, Poulenc and Wagner, are high on the fun quotient. The Rogés are having a right ball, and listeners have been invited to the party.

SHOSTAKOVICH Preludes & Fugues
ECM New Series 1469/70 (2CDs)

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues Op.87 were composed for his young compatriot Tatiana Nikolayeva after she won the Bach International Piano Competition in Leipzig in 1950. A tribute to Bach’s genius, he follows the schema of The Well-Tempered Clavier, opening in simple C major and closing in sombre D minor. So what has legendary jazz pianist Keith Jarrett have to say about this music?

Initial scepticism turned into revelation in these thorny little gems. Many of the Preludes sound improvisatory in character, suiting Jarrett to a tee. Shostakovich used to dabble in jazz and popular styles as a pianist in silent movie theatres himself. The rigorous counterpoint in the fugues are masterly overcome, some (No.12 and 15 in particular) with stunning velocity and panache. Most importantly, he retains the irony and droll wit that is sine qua non Shostakovich. Alongside celebrated readings by Nikolayeva, Ashkenazy and Scherbakov, all Russians, Jarrett’s 1991 recording is no slouch.

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