Thursday, 13 September 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2012)

BRAHMS Piano Works Vol.1
Chandos 10716 / *****

The Irish pianist Barry Douglas was awarded first prize at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, having performed the First Piano Concerto by Johannes Brahms. His affinity for the German composer continues with this, the first instalment in a cycle of Brahms’s complete solo piano music. Instead of performing complete sets of his short pieces as they were published, Douglas’s selections are piecemeal in approach. This works well because he is able to vary the mood and colour with each succeeding piece, beginning with scorching virtuosity in the  Rhapsody in B minor (Op.79 No.1) and then moving into intimate vistas of the late Intermezzos, which in turn are separated by the more volatile and excitable Capriccios (three from Op.116). 

Douglas is fully attuned to Brahms’s big gestures and ever-shifting undercurrents of brooding disquiet. These accounts are probing, sometimes intense and even beautiful (the Ballade in B major, Op.10 No.4), but never superficial or flashy for its own sake. The concession for full-blown virtuosity finally arrives in the much earlier Variations And Fugue On A Theme By Handel (Op.24) where all stops are pulled. Each short variation is imaginatively shaped and the overall effect is kaleidoscopic, with an exciting build-up to the valedictory final fugue. Volume 2 will be keenly awaited.      

Chandos 10704 / *****

Many composers write their clarinet works with certain favourite virtuosos in mind. Mozart had Anton Stadler while Brahms’s muse was Richard Mühlfeld. British composers have Charles Draper and his student Frederick Thurston to thank, and this anthology is the fruit of their collaborations. The earliest music is the Sonata (1911) by Irishman Charles Villiers Stanford, which is heavily influenced by Brahms’s two late clarinet sonatas. The autumnal Romantic style of the German master is unmistakeable. Arnold Bax’s Sonata (1934) is more impressionistic, and like his tone poems on Celtic lore is very rhapsodic in character.

John Ireland’s evocative Fantasy-Sonata (1943), cast in the slow-fast form, is much in the same vein. Also included are the brief Pastorale (1913-14) by Arthur Bliss and the latest work, Herbert Howells’s Sonata (1947). Lyricism and mellowness of tone again rule in this two-movement work which is both mellifluous and memorable. Britain’s most celebrated clarinettist Michael Collins is in top form for these recordings, combining sensitivity and a wealth of nuances with an undeniable virtuosity. The fact that Collins’s teacher was Thea King, Thurston’s student and widow, also lends the performances some historical significance and a touch of authenticity.

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