Thursday, 13 December 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, December 2012)

STENHAMMAR Piano Concertos Nos.1&2
Niklas Sivelöv, Piano
Malmö Symphony / Mario Venzago
Naxos 8.572259 / *****

Here is a plausible pub quiz question from Stockholm: Which is the most often played Swedish piano concerto? That would be the Piano Concerto No.2 in D minor by Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927). Exactly. Almost everyone knows the “national composers” of Norway (Grieg), Finland (Sibelius) and Denmark (Nielsen), but Sweden calls for some head-scratching. Stenhammar probably comes closest to that epithet, but it is his solid Germanic musical training from Berlin, often untouched by folk influences, which makes him somewhat less distinctive. Both of his piano concertos are however totally enjoyable examples of Romantic piano writing.

The shorter Concerto No.2 of 1908 unusually begins with a solo introduction by the piano (like in Beethoven’s Fourth and Rachmaninov’s Second), which never gets heard again (like Tchaikovsky’s First). Its movements play without a break (like Liszt’s) but contain memorable moments and melodies, including a romping finale with Schumannesque themes. The 4-movement Concerto No.1 in B flat minor of 1893 plays for a monumental 42 minutes. The influence is clearly Brahms’s Second Concerto, but he does not slavishly copy. There is enough individuality and wealth of ideas to sustain its length. The slow movement radiates beauty and warmth, before the work closes with an almost-folksy spell of lightness. Swedish pianist Niklas Sivelöv breathes a blend of lyricism and virtuosity that makes the music luxuriate and sparkle. This is the only combination of both concertos at budget price, a must for lovers of romantic concertos.

MOZART Piano Concertos No.9 & 21
The Cleveland Orchestra
Decca 478 3539 / *****

Mozart’s Ninth Piano Concerto in E flat major K.271, also known as the Jeunehomme, was his first true masterpiece in the genre and also his longest. Quite unusually, the piano makes its first statement at the outset, just before the orchestral tutti, an act of innovation that would later appear in Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. It also has one of Mozart’s most moving and heartfelt slow movements, and a Rondo finale that introduces a genteel minuet-like episode as its central interlude. It remains a mystery why it is not as often performed as the extremely popular Piano Concerto No.21 in C major K.467.

The latter’s fame owes a small part to its graceful Andante second movement featuring in the 1960s Swedish romance movie Elvira Madigan, but has anybody actually watched that film? At any rate, it is an easier listen from its march-like opening to bubbly and light-hearted finale. In both concertos, Japanese virtuosa Mitsuko Uchida who directs from the keyboard is the epitome of elegance and utmost musicality. Her cadenzas for K.467 are tasteful and totally in the spirit of the times. This, the third recording of her second Mozart concerto cycle, is an artistic triumph.

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