Thursday, 30 August 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2012)

STRAVINSKY The Firebird / Orchestral Arrangements
Bergen Philharmonic / ANDREW LITTON
BIS SACD-1874 / ****1/2

The music of Igor Stravinsky’s first ballet, The Firebird, is usually enjoyed at concerts in the form of its short 1919 Suite, which lasts some 20 minutes. The complete ballet, a rarity because of the massive orchestral forces employed, plays for over twice as long. It is an extremely colourful score, much in the style of Stravinsky’s teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, with its Russian fairy-tale story of a hero, princesses and ogres vividly characterised. In this sumptuous recording, the dances truly come to life aided by excellent woodwind and brass, culminating in the ferocious Infernal Dance and glorious final apotheosis.

The value of this disc lies in its unusual fillers. Instead of another ballet, Stravinsky’s rarely heard orchestrations of music by Tchaikovsky (Bluebird Pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty), Sibelius (Canzonetta) and Chopin (a nocturne and a waltz) are offered. True to form, Stravinsky’s ingenious play with sound textures assures quirks aplenty. The biggest surprise is reserved for the minute-long Birthday Greeting, an outlandish distortion of the children’s Happy Birthday party song which plays down the melody but magnifies the accompaniment. Have fun in this musical “hall of mirrors”.

DANIEL BARENBOIM, Piano & Conductor
Decca 478 3513 (2 CDs) / **1/2

Anyone who has gone through the triumphs and vicissitudes of life will identify with the life-affirming music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). He was Everyman personified, dogged by unrequited love and deafness, yet invigorated by his ideals of liberty, egalitarianism and the brotherhood of man. This double-disc is a sampler of his complete symphonies, piano concertos and piano sonatas (to be issued on 18 discs in three box-sets) as interpreted by Daniel Barenboim, surely one of great Beethovenians of our age.

Six of the nine symphonies, four of the five piano concertos and three sonatas (out of 32) are represented. Despite the fine performances, the sequence of disembodied movements selected does the music scant justice. There is neither chronological order nor programming intelligence in place. For example, the lovely Adagio slow movement of the Emperor Concerto does not fade off when it should but continues with the linking passage as if launching into the Rondo finale. Then the listener is assailed with the Rondo of the First Piano Concerto instead! Surely Barenboim could not have been party to this insult. Clearly this is Beethoven For Dummies. It is far better to get the full sets instead (and probably Decca’s intention as well).

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