Friday, 26 November 2010

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, November 2010)

Jeremy Siepmann, Narrator
Idil Biret, Piano
Naxos Audiobooks 445612 (4CDs)

There are many books about Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) which one can indulge in during his bicentenary. However if reading takes too long, these five hours afforded by veteran ex-BBC broadcaster and writer Jeremy Siepmann are a handy substitute. He draws from many letters and contemporary accounts to paint a portrait of Chopin’s fragile genius, from his prodigious youth, rise to fame, to tragic and untimely demise. Casual listeners will be interested to learn that Chopin gave very few concerts, and despite his celebrity status was chronically short of cash. His chief source of income was through teaching, but would fritter it away through frivolities like daily visits to a hairstylist and making grand appearances in a horse-drawn carriage.

Many musical interludes provided by Turkish pianist Idil Biret separate Siepmann’s plain-speaking but erudite narrative, and quotes from four actors. One of few pianists to have recorded Chopin’s complete oeuvre, Biret’s faithful but staid interpretations may be an acquired taste for some. Ardently recommended for all piano students and pianophiles alike.

Lee Foundation Theatre
Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts
1-5 December 2010

SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No.11 “The Year 1905”
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic
Mark Wigglesworth
BIS SACD- 1583

When it comes to music for serious newsreels and war documentaries, no composer has been more imitated than Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). His symphonies bear the brunt of widespread plagiarism because its emotional heft and sheer gravity is memorable and gripping. His Eleventh Symphony (1956) was written in memory of Bloody Sunday on 22 January 1905, when over a thousand peaceful demonstrators were massacred outside the Winter Palace, St Petersburg by the royal guard. This landmark event ultimately led to the Tsar’s overthrow and Russian Revolution some 12 years later.

In four movements, Shostakovich’s hour-long programme symphony relives a bleak wintry morning, the ensuing carnage, a memorial for the fallen and the resultant call to arms. All this may be derided as Communist propaganda but there is little denying the brilliant pacing and narrative which Shostakovich delivers. The solo playing, particularly the solitary trumpet (first heard in the eerily quiet opening) and cor anglais (aftermath of the finale), is particularly fine and the tumultuous climaxes vividly captured. The recorded sound on this hybrid SACD is in the demonstration class. So why hesitate?

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