Thursday, 21 February 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, February 2013)

SCHUMANN Piano Works
Fabula Classica 2221 / *****

It may be said that Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was the ultimate Romantic composer. A failed virtuoso pianist, he poured out his heart, inspired by the muse Clara whom he later married against all odds. After fathering 8 children and vainly fighting schizophrenia, he died painfully and alone in an insane asylum. His piano music encompasses all the passions, trials and tribulations, and ultimately undying loves. These historical recordings attest to his enduring spirit.

Despite numerous slips and inaccuracies, Alfred Cortot’s performance of the 22-movement Carnaval (1928) radiates an irrepressible warmth and unfettered ecstasy. Has there been a more plain-speaking Scenes From Childhood (1950) from that arch-virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz? His plaintive Träumerei (Dreaming) says it all. For scintillating dexterity, look no further than the ABEGG Variations from Clara Haskil (1953) or the Toccata in C major from Sviatoslav Richter (1959). There is not a note of machine-like playing here, instead undiminished poetry that distinguishes these pianists of yesteryear.

Wilhelm Backhaus contributes more lyricism in the underrated Forest Scenes (1955). The oldest recordings are also the shortest: Francis Planté in Romance in F sharp major (1928) and Liszt-student Carl Reinecke in Warum? from Fantasy Pieces Op.12 (1906). The playing and musicianship are transcendent enough to overlook the hiss, crackle and pop.  This is essential listening for serious students of musical history.

BIS SACD-1972 / ****1/2

Johann Sebastian Bach’s unaccompanied violin partitas are the inspiration for this recital, which develops upon the German master’s ever-creative play on counterpoint and the spirit of the dance. The start points are the multi-movement Second and Third Partitas, which Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman performs with utmost accuracy, perfect intonation and much verve. Immediately following the imposing Chaconne in D minor, Par.ti.ta (2007) by the Russian-American Lera Auerbach (born 1973) begins. It is an engaging 10-movement suite that relives the antique style and spirit of the Baroque, unremittingly tonal but spiced with occasional Schnittke-like dissonances. Its dedicatee Gluzman laps up its every nuance and phrase.

There is a thematic link between Bach’s Third Partita and Eugene Ysaye’s Second Sonata (Op.27 No.2). The latter, in four movements, opens with exactly the same bars as the Preludio of the former. A tribute to both Bach and its dedicatee Jacques Thibaud, the fearsomely virtuosic works then takes off on a tangent into the realms of the diabolical and dare-devilry. Cast in A minor, it unsurprisingly ruminates on the Dies Irae theme which reveals yet another inspiration – the seemingly impossible technical feats of Paganini. Gluzman is the modern-day Paganini and brings to these scores an unwavering sense of adventure, risk and ultimately reward.

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