Friday, 17 February 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, February 2012)

Singapore Symphony Orchestra / LAN SHUI
BIS CD-1739 / *****

This anthology handily brings together four flute concertante works by three Chinese-American composers - Zhou Long, Chen Yi and Bright Sheng – all born in the 1950s and who had lived through the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution. Despite combining contemporary idioms with Chinese and Oriental motifs, these pieces are an interestingly varied bunch. Zhou’s Five Elements (2008) play on the differing yet complementary perceptions of metal, wood, water, fire and earth, in the five linked movements. His rhapsodic The Deep, Deep Sea (2004) has a more impressionist colour, which made it a good companion for Debussy’s La Mer when it was first issued several years ago.

Chen’s The Golden Flute has the feeling of a fantasy, despite being in the classical fast-slow-fast concerto form. Flute and piccolo alternate in Sheng’s Flute Moon, manifested in a vigorous dance of the qilin (the spiritual chimera of Chinese mythology) and the lyricism of Sung dynasty poetry. Israeli flautist Sharon Bezaly’s exhaustive mastery of her instrument’s possibilities and a most alert and supportive SSO make this a very listenable, even enjoyable outing.

BACH Goldberg Variations / Fretwork
Harmonia Mundi 907560 (2 CDs) / *****

The universality and portability of J.S.Bach’s music ensures that much of it remains timeless whatever the form it takes. His Goldberg Variations, originally written for harpsichord to sooth an insomniac count, has sounded convincing on piano, harp, strings and various ensembles. This new version arranged for six viols by Richard Boothby deserves a special place in every library. Viols are antique instruments related to the lute dating from the Renaissance. Possessing frets and bowed on gut strings, their sound is mellower compared with steel strings of modern instruments.

The Variations are based on the descending sequence of notes played by the left hand of the keyboard rather than the opening Aria’s actual melody. There are 30 variations in all, with every third one being a canon. This offers a wealth of possibilities, and every movement is a gem. The diverging lines of counterpoint are shared by the players of Fretwork, the world’s leading viol ensemble, who respond with precision and perfect intonation. Variation No.20, which uses plucked strings, has a harp-like resonance that sounds totally magical. As repeats are taken, the work stretches to 90 minutes on two discs, priced as one. This is heavenly listening indeed.

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