Friday, 13 April 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, April 2012)

Hyperion 67903 / ****1/2

Homage To Paderewski was a 1942 album of piano music published by Boosey & Hawkes commemorating the 40th anniversary of virtuoso Ignacy Paderewski’s American debut concert tour. The one-time Polish president however died in 1941, and this anthology by 16 composers became his requiem. Bartok, Martinu and Milhaud are the only familiar faces here, but some of the most memorable pieces come from virtually forgotten names. Most capitalised on Polish dance rhythms or the funeral march in tribute, sometimes both. The Elegiac Mazurka by Arthur Benjamin (composer of Jamaican Rumba) sounds much like late Scriabin, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Hommage a Paderewski is a whimsical mazurka, while Richard Hammond’s Dance distils the more violent pages from Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

Others played on Paderewski’s love of Chopin, such as Theodore Chanler’s minute-long nocturne-like Aftermath and Ernst Schelling’s tender Con Tenerezza. British pianist Jonathan Plowright, whose variegated touch makes each work sound like gems, also includes six other pieces dedicated to Paderewski. The most memorable among these is Benjamin Britten’s Mazurka Elegiaca, mistakenly written for two pianos instead of one, which is a haunting slow procession in three quarter time. Also notable are the Romantic anachronisms: fellow Pole Aleksandr Zarzycki’s Chant Du Printemps and the French queen of salon Cecile Chaminade’s Etude Symphonique come from a bygone age of Chopinisms. All in all, this is an excellently presented selection that will please the terminally inquisitive.

BRUCH Violin Concerto No.1
String Quintet / Romance
Bergen Philharmonic / Andrew Litton
BIS SACD-1852 / ****1/2

The evergreen First Violin Concerto in G minor by Max Bruch (1838-1920) has been so over-exposed and over-recorded that each new recording needs to be special in order to stand out. The programme notes relate the German composer wishing the work to be proscribed completely, as its over-popularity had obscured his other music. Ukrainian-Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman and the Bergen Philharmonic give a solid account that lacks nothing in the departments of beautiful tone, heartrending dramatics and virtuoso fireworks. It is the couplings, however, that make this album special. Instead of the Mendelssohn or Brahms concertos, or Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy (his second most performed concertante work), the listener is offered genuine rarities.

Bruch’s Romance in F major (originally written for viola) is mined from the same lyrical vein as the concertos, and is a totally delectable listen. His String Quintet in A minor from 1918 is an anachronism for its time. While Schoenberg, Bartok and Stravinsky were busily dismantling the foundations of tonal music, here was the 80-year-old Bruch still churning out lush Romantic melodies and gestures that were de rigeuer in the 1870s. In four movements and scored like Mozart’s quintets (with two violas), this is a pleasurable jaunt into nostalgia. Gluzman plays the soloistic first violin part (sounding like yet another violin concerto), ably supported by his string partners. The chemistry is palpable and the ensemble is beautifully recorded.

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