Monday, 27 December 2010

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, December 2010)

Vienna Philharmonic / Georges Pretre
Deutsche Grammophon 478 2113 (2CDs)

More lollipops and Sacher tortes from the city of the “Waltz King”, Johann Strauss II and his family. Will anyone really tire of hearing the Blue Danube Waltz followed by rhythmic clapping to the Radetzky March? These are de rigeuer in this ritzy annual event where omission is tantamount to sacrilege. French conductor Georges Pretre returned for his second fling, but the programme is more conventional than usual.

There is a token French work in Jacques Offenbach’s Rhine Fairies Overture, remembered mostly because it is the origin of his famous Barcarolle (which later appears in The Tales Of Hoffmann). Otto Nicolai, founder of the Vienna Philharmonic, is represented by his effervescent Merry Wives of Windsor Overture. There is also a nod to the Dane Hans Christian Lumbye, known as the Johann Strauss of the North, for his bubbly Champagne Gallop.

So what if works with soppy titles like Wine, Woman and Song, Stormy Love and Dance, A Woman’s Heart and One Heart, One Mind aren’t as high brow as a Brahms symphony? Their charm factor is high and as far as orchestras go, nobody does it better.

The Debussy Préludes
Hallé Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder
Halle 7527 (2CDs)

The two books of Préludes for piano by Claude Debussy are such wondrously colourful gems that they beg to be orchestrated. Leopold Stokowski’s luxuriant transcription of The Engulfed Cathedral is justly celebrated, but the re-workings by English composer Colin Matthews (born 1946) of all 24 pieces come closer to Debussy’s own spirit and sound world. The Frenchman was never an atonalist but some of these pieces - especially the desolate Footsteps In The Snow or the spare Canope - sound eternally modern. Deft use of brass and percussion, with emphasis on light and shade, all come into play to make this cycle a memorable one.

The Préludes are split over 2 discs (priced as one) but do not follow the usual sequence. Matthews’ own order, mixing and matching from both books, alternating fast and slow numbers, works equally well. Matthews throws in a postlude, an original work of his own entitled Monsieur Croche, a dynamic portrait of the French composer, who had used that nom-de-plume. The Manchester-based orchestra under Sir Mark Elder are exemplary and have the field to themselves.

LANG LANG Live in Vienna
Sony Classical 88697719012 (2CDs)

This is Lang Lang’s début recording on the Sony Classical label after his high profile switch from Deutsche Grammophon. Typically choosing repertoire to suit his exuberant and emotionally charged persona, the results are a qualified success. He begins with two Beethoven Sonatas, the early C major (Op.2 No.3) and the popular “Appassionata” (Op.57). While the outer movements expectedly burst forth with energy and vitality, he drags out the slow movements, almost to the point of parody. Does Beethoven really benefit from this protracted and narcissistic approach? Or is this Lang Lang putting his personal stamp on the music?

The second disc is less contentious. Taking a leaf from his mentor Daniel Barenboim, he plays the First Book of Albeniz’s Iberia, generating a riot of colour and sound. He is even better in Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, finding lyricism and brutality in equal measure. Its no-holds-barred Precipitato finale and three Chopin encores send the audience into a wild frenzy. And the recorded applause on disc is the longest in living memory, surpassing even Horowitz and Rubinstein. Go figure.

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