Friday, 5 August 2011

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2011)

LISZT Elegies / Tristia
SMETANA Piano Trio
Trio Wanderer
Harmonia Mundi 902060 / ****

This is an unusual but interesting juxtaposition of music by starkly contrasted composers, united by the theme of tragedy and grief. The Czech nationalist Bedrich Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor was written in 1855 following the death of his four-year-old daughter from scarlet fever. Its three movements – ironically played fast rather than slow – paved the way for the genre of elegiac trios, later perfected by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. The French threesome finds the right shades of grey and black, while playing with red-hot passion.

Franz Liszt composed no original piano trios. Tristia is a trio arrangement of the popular Vallee d’Obermann for piano. It includes a new introduction, sombre and almost atonal, thus congruent with his later output. However this version does not match the gravitas of its original, with violin and cello making it sound like something out of a palm court salon. His shorter violin works, The Cell In Nonnenwerth and Forgotten Romance, are autumnal pieces with a laid-back and pithy quality. His three Elegies, including dark and sinister The Lugubrious Gondola, point to the future. Not an easy listen, but worth exploring.

20th Century Classics
Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Decca 478 2759 (10 CDs) / ****1/2

There was a time when the Academy of St Martin in the Fields led by its founder violinist-conductor Neville Marriner represented the last word in chamber ensemble music. This box-set relives ten albums from the late 1960s through 1970s, retaining the original covers and mostly fond memories. Most of the works come from the first half of the last century, when names like Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky and Ives were music’s iconoclasts. Pieces by Wagner, Grieg and Bizet, from the 19th century, do not qualify but provide a link between tradition and modern trends.

For example, the coupling of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen is euphonious. So is Bizet’s sunny Symphony in C major heard alongside Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, both from the pen of young bright sparks. Academy strings impress the most, especially in Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations, Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagete and the obligatory Barber Adagio. The late pianist John Ogdon also guests in Stravinsky’s Capriccio and Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto. This trip into nostalgia is a painless introduction to treasures of the last century.

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