Thursday, 16 August 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2012)

BRAHMS Piano Concerto No.1
Staatskapelle Dresden / Christian Thielemann
Deutsche Grammophon 477 9882 / *****

The First Piano Concerto of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was the German composer’s first major symphonic work. From a young virtuoso pianist who seemed to model himself after Beethoven, the concerto mirrored his three early piano sonatas in harnessing raw power and strength, revelling in outsized gestures like heavy octaves and chords. Its portent of tragedy and high drama continues from the passion of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, the form of which it builds upon. The suicide attempt of mentor Robert Schumann and tender feelings towards his wife Clara also colour the 45-minute masterpiece that opens in a tumultuous maelstrom, professes reverence and love, before closing in a blaze of triumph.

For these earth-shaking emotional shifts, legendary Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini dusts off accusations of being dispassionate or anti-Romantic in the manner he launches fearlessly into its bristling pages. As expected, his impeccable technique more than holds up to the lofty demands, but more importantly this performance vividly captures the music’s turbulence and inner strife. The orchestra, providing more than just support, is integral to Brahms’s symphonic thoughts and ideals. In a way, this was his first “symphony”, with the piano playing its chief protagonist. Pollini’s new account, recorded live in 2011, is possibly the best of his three recordings for the Yellow Label.        

Gewandhausorchester / Riccardo Chailly
Decca 476 4832 / ****1/2

The period between the two World Wars saw a love affair blossom between the classical composers of the Old World and the groovy new movement called jazz from the New World. This interesting album is the fruit of that successful cross-cultural exchange, beginning with Maurice Ravel’s iconic Piano Concerto in G major. This is a fully written out score with no possibility of improvisation, but the liberal use of the blues, syncopation, driving beats and rhythms, decked with exotic orchestration that makes it sound jazzy. Italian jazzman Stefano Bollani gives an idiomatic but somewhat soft focus reading that makes one pay more attention to the excellent woodwind and brass players of the Gewandhaus Orchestra instead.

His solo contributions of Stravinsky’s Tango, with far more swing than most classical pianists, and laid back transcriptions of Kurt Weill’s Surabaya Johnny (Happy End) and Tango Ballad (Threepenny Opera) are a plus. The chief reason to acquire this disc is the ballet Mille e una Notte (A Thousand and One Nights) by Italian conductor-composer Victor de Sabata (1892-1967). Imagine Puccini in Hollywood for a breezy 28 minutes, with dance sequences leading up to a finale that owes much to Gershwin’s hit song Fascinatin’ Rhythm but dressed in the opulent colours of Respighi. Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly and his German charges make it sound like a masterpiece.

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