Thursday, 27 December 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, December 2012)

Vienna Philharmonic / MARISS JANSONS
Sony Classical 88697927102 / *****
The traditional closing works of all Vienna New Year’s Concerts are, without exception, Johann Strauss the Younger’s Blue Danube Waltz and his father’s Radetzky March. In this edition, Latvia-born conductor Mariss Jansons provides an early surprise by opening the concert with two works that quote both these warhorses. The Vaterlandischer March (Patriotic March) and Rathhaus-Ball Tanze (Town Hall Ball) both get first performances, as do Tchaikovsky’s Panorama and Waltz from The Sleeping Beauty. Non-Viennese “guest” composers do get featured on and off, as long as they are equally entertaining. Copenhagen Steam Railway Gallop, as good as train music gets, comes from the Dane Hans Christian Lumbye, known as the Strauss of the North.
The Vienna Boys’ Choir make a cameo in the Tritsch Tratsch (Chit Chat) Polka and younger brother Josef Strauss’s Feuerfest (Fireproof) Polka, adding to the festive atmosphere. Some unusual rarities come in Joseph Helmesberger’s Hungarian-flavoured Danse Diabolique and   Eduard Strauss’s Carmen Quadrille, which is a digest of favourite tunes from Bizet’s Carmen played in double and triple speed. Favourites like the Pizzicato and Thunder and Lightning Polkas return, and the fun factor is high. The usually staid Viennese really know how to have serious fun.
FRANCAIX Wind Chamber Music
Bergen Woodwind Quintet
BIS SACD-2008 / ****1/2
The French composer Jean Francaix (1912-1997) stands out uniquely among his musical compatriots by not being a member of any trendy musical movement, school or -ism. While contemporaries were breaking new ground in post-impressionist modernism and experimenting with atonalism or serialism, he wrote only tonal music and totally agreeable ones at that. Like the more serious-minded and neo-religious Francis Poulenc, Francaix’s music is good humoured, exquisitely crafted and possibly most important of all, entertaining. This hour-long collection of wind music is totally easy on the ear, but extremely demanding for the performers.
Almost four decades separate the two Wind Quintets (1948 and 1987), but both share an infectious sense of wit and penchant for lightness without being frivolous. It is almost impossible to tell which is earlier or later. Popular musical genres and jazz idioms are incorporated into these 20-minute long works, and the challenge is for players to keep the music spontaneous and springing with quasi-improvisatory surprises. The Bergen Woodwind Quintet is a virtuoso outfit that delivers with terrific aplomb. The shorter Wind Quartet (1933) and Divertissement for oboe, clarinet and bassoon (1947) complete this thoroughly enjoyable outing, which can be a guilty pleasure indeed.

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