Thursday, 12 July 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, July 2012)

CHISHOLM Piano Concertos
BBC Scottish Symphony / Rory MacDonald
Hyperion 67880 / ****1/2

Some works of music are destined not to be performed often, or at all, simply because the technical demands are too great for performers and perceived limited appeal for audiences. This fate has befallen the two piano concertos of Erik Chisholm (1904-1965), the well travelled Scottish composer-conductor and ethno-musicologist, who was from 1945 to 1946 the conductor of the Entertainment for National Service Associations (ENSA) Orchestra in Singapore, the first group to be called the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Lasting well over half-an-hour each, these very interesting works explore exotic musical scales and idioms, supported by highly colourful orchestration.

Piano Concerto No.1 (1932-38) carries the title Piobaireachd, which is Scottish for music played on highland bagpipes. The use of bassoon and oboe creates the effect of drones over which the piano cuts through swathes of dense textures. Superficially it resembles Bartok’s popular Third Piano Concerto and even predates it. Receiving a recorded premiere is the even more fascinating Piano Concerto No.2, called the Hindustani because it makes use of the raga form in its three movements. Experts on Indian music have themselves vouched for its authenticity. Young British pianist Danny Driver is a most convincing and fearless of soloists, and these rarities are well worth more than several listens.

Decca 478 2826 (50 CDs) / *****

Following the example of Deutsche Grammophon’s mega-box sets, the British Decca label’s own 50-disc retrospective is a tribute not only to its artists but the recording crew and engineers, to which it owes the fabled “Decca Sound”. There is a long essay in praise of names like Arthur Haddy, John Culshaw and Christopher Raeburn. But what of the music itself? First listen to the orchestral blockbusters, pride of place going to Sir Georg Solti’s Wagner Ring Cycle highlights with the Vienna Philharmonic and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the Chicago Symphony. Then check out Lorin Maazel and The Cleveland Orchestra in Respighi and Rimsky-Korsakov for sheer aural opulence. Despite their age, the sound is in the demonstration bracket.

Decca, which prides itself as the “Opera label”, devotes three discs to its late star tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who appears in the 1990 Three Tenors Concert, Puccini’s Turandot highlights, and in a Lincoln Centre concert with Dame Joan Sutherland. Decca’s long-serving pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy (playing Rachmaninov), Alicia de Larrocha (Granados and Falla), Pascal Roge (Saint-SaĆ«ns) and Andras Schiff (Bach) are also honoured. The most recent recording sees young Dutch violin sensation Janine Jensen ingeniously coupling violin concertos by Beethoven and Britten. Whether one randomly dips into the set, or listens alphabetically from Ansermet (Falla’s Three Cornered Hat and Debussy Images) to the Wiener Oktett (Mendelsohn’s String Octet and Beethoven’s Septet), there is much to enjoy in these golden oldies.

This set retails at $149.90 (working out at just under $3 per disc) at HMV.

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