Friday, 25 February 2011

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, February 2011)

BRAHMS Variations for Solo Piano
Hyperion 67777 (2 CDs)

Johannes Brahms’ early piano output was filled with large ambitious pieces, which got progressively smaller as he matured and aged. His six sets of piano variations are youthful works which contain some of his most virtuosic and original thoughts. Early promise may be found in his Op.21 pair, based on an original theme and Hungarian folksong respectively, but the Schumann Variations (Op.9), spare and pensive, reveal a visionary mind.

More familiar are his Handel Variations (Op.24), which build ever so inexorably around a popular air and climaxing in a massive fugal culmination. Piano competition junkies favour the Paganini Variations (Op.35), after the 24th Caprice (itself a set of variations), two books of Brahms’ most fiendish finger-busters. American pianist Garrick Ohlsson is the ideal Brahmsian, combining blustery brawn with an intimacy of touch and tone allure. His razor-sharp reflexes revels in the music’s sharp turns and contrasts, and does not miss a note. At 2 discs for the price of one, this set remains a prime recommendation.

Decca 478 2360 (2CDs)

What makes a great song? Catchy and hummable melodies, memorable words, and the right singers to give the definitive performance. This collection of non-operatic songs draws from musicals, movies, folk traditions and popular culture, sung by the great vocalists of our time. Not all are idiomatic. Any of The Three Tenors singing in English will be dodgy, and operatic voices often do not suit the arch-simplicity of the popular song. But there are surprises. American soprano Renee Fleming completely makes Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour and the Beatles’ In My Life her own. She does not oversing, and neither does Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter who sounds so natural in two Abba songs.

The Dutch soprano Elly Ameling feels the beat in Cole Porter’s Begin The Beguine and I Get The Kick Out Of You. The crossover forays of Bryn Terfel, Barbara Hendricks and Thomas Quasthoff are already well known. Some of the accompanists are top draw too, Andre Previn plays jazz piano for Sylvia McNair’s Jerome Kern and Kiri Te Kanawa’s Johnny Mandel, while the Labeque Sisters do their bit for Gershwin. Try as you may, but it is hard to really dislike these 38 tracks.

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