Friday, 9 March 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, March 2012)

SOMERVELL Highland Concerto / Normandy
COWEN Concertstück
BBC Scottish Symphony / Martyn Brabbins
Hyperion 67837 / ****1/2

Volume 54 of the British Hyperion label’s unusually adventurous Romantic Piano Concertos series unearths several gems receiving their first ever recordings. These are not 24-carat diamonds but sparkling stones of a semi-precious kind that would look good on any necklace. The Concertstück (Concert Piece) of Sir Frederic Hymen Cowen (1852-1935), composed in 1897, actually sounds more exciting than its dull title suggests. Its first performance was given by no less than the great Ignace Paderewski. It follows the typically Mendelssohnian schema of a slow elegiac introduction before bursting out into a jaunty country dance that ultimately steals the show with the inevitable pianistic fireworks.

The two concertante works of Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) are just as enjoyable. Normandy (1912) is a set of symphonic variations based on a Norman folksong, and employs Franz Liszt’s device of thematic transformation and metamorphosis to superb effect. His “Highland” Piano Concerto in A minor (1921) is the piano counterpart of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy for violin. More crudely put, it does for Scottish music what the Yellow River Concerto does for Chinese music. Unashamedly tuneful, its original but highly folksy themes (think songs for bagpipes) stick in the mind long after the work has ended. Martin Roscoe is the grandstanding pianist who makes one feel that this music should be as well known as the Grieg Piano Concerto. And why not?

SCHUBERT String Quintet / Quartettsatz
Tokyo String Quartet with David Watkin, Cello
Harmonia Mundi 807427 / ****1/2

A number of the late works of Franz Schubert (1897-1828) are united by several features. They were broad and expansive in scale (“heavenly length” is the common description), mostly performed and published long after his premature death, or left tantalisingly incomplete. His String Quintet in C major (D.956) was composed in his final months, but premiered more than twenty years later in 1850. Running over 50 minutes, it has been hailed as the greatest masterpiece of chamber work. This new recording from the Tokyo String Quartet (with two of its original members from 1969 still playing) and cellist David Watkin fulfils every sphere of its conception. The long-breathed melodies, its world-wearied journey in the slow movement, and energy of the Scherzo and Hungarian-flavoured finale come across most winningly.

The fill-up is Schubert’s Quartet in C minor (D.703), an earlier work with a completed Allegro (which carries the title Quartettsatz or Quartet Movement) and an unfinished Andante. Like his “Unfinished” Symphony, the melodic charm is palpable but the slow movement tapers abruptly into thin air shortly after the 2-minute mark. What if Schubert had lived to 60 and not succumbed at 31 to a deadly combination typhus and syphilis? We can only be grateful for the treasures he left behind.

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