Friday, 30 September 2011

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2011)

BEETHOVEN Diabelli Variations
Harmonia Mundi 902071 / ****1/2

Having recorded the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas and Piano Concertos, it was only natural for award-winning British pianist Paul Lewis to tackle the German composer’s longest piano work, the Diabelli Variations. In 1821, the Viennese publisher Anton Diabelli’s had invited all the eminent composers of the time to contribute a single variation on a banal little waltz theme of his own creation. In a typically Beethovenian act of conceit, the irascible genius wrote not one but 33 variations. Its 50 minutes are literally a kaleidoscopic view of the piano and its myriad possibilities.

A certain quirky humour inhabits these short variations, as Beethoven cocks a snook at the various conventions of the time, including himself. For example, Variation No. 22 is a mocking parody on Leporello’s droll aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and the hairpin twists and turns he subjects listeners to make them wonder, “What will he think of next?” Lewis has all the technical facility to do this music justice and more. The calmer and more sublime variations, especially No.31 – marked Largo, molto espressivo - however resound with a timeless glow, turning mere period charm into one of ageless beauty. Ardently recommended.

Harmonia Mundi 902078 (CD + DVD) / *****

“The Cello Speaks” is the perfect title for this glorious recording of 20th century music for the accompanied cello. For 82 minutes, the listener is regaled by an instrument that whispers, weeps, sings and soars in wonderfully diverse repertoire. Benjamin Britten’s Third Suite, written for Mstislav Rostropovich, is the most demanding listen. Its nine movements are varied vignettes, short dances based on Russian motifs and capped with an extended Passacaglia. More readily accessible are the Suites of Catalan cellist-composer Gaspar Cassado and Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly, filled with nationalist themes and rhythms of their respective homelands.

Itenerance, by French pianist-composer Pascal Amoyel, Bertrand’s usual chamber music collaborator, opens and closes with a lament accompanied by the cellist’s own haunting voice, book-ending a Jewish dance. This was composed in 2003 and used for a production that recounted the experiences of Auschwitz concentration camp survivors. Bertrand’s voluminous tone and gorgeous vibrato are a joy to behold, and the accompanying documentary DVD is a generous bonus.

Note: The edited ST article on 30 September made Emmanuelle Bertrand out to be a man! My apologies to this wonderful performer who I hope to get to hear in person sometime.

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