Thursday, 25 October 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, October 2012)

SOLER Keyboard Sonatas Nos.1-15
Naxos 8.572515 / ****1/2

For those who enjoy playing or listening to Domenico Scarlatti’s 555 or so keyboard sonatas, there are some 150 sonatas by the Spaniard Padre Antonio Soler (1729-1783) to keep them occupied. Soler joined the priesthood and like his Italian mentor was devoted to teaching the scions of royalty. The prince Don Gabriel was dedicatee of many keyboard sonatas, which follow Scarlatti’s single-movement, two-part form with repeats. These were likely to have been composed in homage, and bear many striking similarities with Scarlatti’s more celebrated examples.

The sonatas traverse a variety of emotions and moods, while being marvellous exercises in nimble and virtuosic playing. Listen to Sonatas No.2, No.6 and No.9 for those busy, guitar-like figurations with rapidly repeated notes, contrasted with the more moody ruminations of No.5, No.8 and No.11. Sonata No.4 delights in percussive military band effects, while No.12 and No.13 go for big-boned orchestral sonorities. Croatian pianist Martina Filjak, winner of the Maria Canals (Barcelona) and Cleveland International Piano Competitions, plays the first 15 sonatas based on the publication and cataloguing system by Padre Samuel Rubio. The readings lack nothing of the humour and vitality that make these attractive pieces a pleasure to behold.

Decca 478 2687 (7 CDs) / ****

That George Gershwin (1898-1937) was the most important cross-over composer of the 20th century is without question. This budget box-set presents his major works in the form of original concert versions as well as arrangements, with a fair share of hits and misses. Why, for example, include a bowdlerised edition of Rhapsody in Blue for two pianos and orchestra instead of the original?

Although Katia and Marielle Labeque are undoubtedly glamourous, this performance with the Cleveland Orchestra directed by Riccardo Chailly comes across as top heavy and over-fussy. The Labecques also accompany an all-too-operatic Barbara Hendricks in a selection of songs including the rarity Anyone Seen Joe, from Blue Monday, Gershwin’s first stab at  the opera genre. The latter contains the same music as his early Lullaby For Strings, also performed here. 

Gershwin’s show music takes the form of several Overtures to his musicals (Boston Pops and Arthur Fiedler), and Broadway songs idiomatically delivered by Patti Austin, Gregory Hines and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra led by John Mauceri. This set’s true triumph is the 1975 production of the folk opera Porgy and Bess conducted by Lorin Maazel, arguably its best recording ever. The titular roles feature the incomparable Willard White and Leona Mitchell with an all-Afro-American supporting cast. A synopsis is included but not the full libretto. This still represents a bargain at under $40 at HMV. 

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