Friday, 24 February 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, February 2012)

Decca 478 3206 / Rating *****

British pianists are not exactly covering themselves in glory at international piano competitions these days, but all this seems irrelevant in the face of a talent such as the 19-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor. Following up on his appearance at last year’s First Night of the BBC Proms, his new solo recording is a stupendous achievement. Inspired programming plays a large part. For example, instead of playing Chopin’s Four Scherzos straight through, he separates each of these fast and brilliant essays with the calm and tranquillity of the Nocturnes. Blessed with impeccable technique, and with certain liberties taken in tempi and rubato, these contrasts simply enhance the listening experience.

The Liszt contribution includes two transcriptions of Chopin’s Polish SongsMy Joys and The Maiden’s Wish - and the diminutive but sublime nocturne En Reve. He finishes off with Ravel’s diabolical Gaspard de la nuit, which he had performed at the Singapore International Piano Festival in 2010. He simply revels in the impressionism and expressionism inspired by Aloysius Bertrand’s poems. The mercurial allure of Ondine, the droll tolling of a distant bell in Le Gibet, and the maniacal laughter of Scarbo are vividly captured in these perfectly realised vignettes. Here is a reading that matches the best in the business.

BENJAMIN GROSVENOR performs Schumann Piano Concerto
with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Okko Kamu
Esplanade Concert Hall, 7.30 pm / Friday, 24 February 2012

Tickets available at SISTIC

KALINNIKOV Symphonies Nos.1 & 2
Malaysian Philharmonic / KEES BAKELS
BIS 1155 / ****1/2

What if the little-known Russian composer Vassily Kalinninov (1866-1901) had lived to a ripe old age instead of dying in consumptive poverty at the age of 34? Such questions may not be fully answered but what we are left with is a small body of music including two very well-crafted symphonies. The young talent had received praise from Tchaikovsky and moral support from Rachmaninov, but his overtly nationalistic symphonies filled with typically Russian themes and motifs are closer in spirit to Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.

The melodies are catchy enough, often more memorable than those of the long-lived academic symphonist Glazunov. When the opening themes are reprised in the finale, the effect is as warm as a reunion between good old friends. Strangely for the Swedish label BIS, whose issues usually come hot off the press, this recording dates back to 2000. Only in the third year of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra’s existence, the playing under its first Music Director Dutchman Kees Bakels is polished, full of passion and involvement. With excellent sound, these readings already surpass those beloved vintage Soviet Melodiya recordings of Yevgeny Svetlanov.

Footnote: Our hearts go out to the nine Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra musicians laid off by the orchestra in the past week, a number of whom have been with the orchestra since its inception in 1998. Your invaluable contribution in invigorating the classical music in Malaysia and Singapore (the MPO has visited at least four times) will not be forgotten.

More on that injustice and ensuing discussion may be found in Norman Lebrecht's blog:

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