Thursday, 28 February 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, February 2013)

New Zealand String Quartet
Naxos 8.572488 / *****

Twenty-five years ago, a disc of Asian string quartet music played by a Western ensemble would have been a pipe-dream. The reality is how Asian composers have risen in the consciousness of global listeners within the last two decades, and this anthology is evidence of that. Three of the works are Chinese, the earliest being Zhou Long’s Song Of The Ch’in (1982), which relives the music of antiquity by introducing Western ears to the concept of qin, representing bowed and plucked instruments. More modern-sounding are Tan Dun’s Eight Colors (1986), short vignettes inspired by idioms and vocal inflexions of Beijing Opera, and the pointillist impressions of Bright Light And Cloud Shadows (2007) by Gao Ping (born 1970), the youngest composer.

The two non-Chinese composers represented are Toru Takemitsu (Japan) and Chinary Ung (Cambodia), who both use strings to sumptuous effect. Takemitsu’s single movement quartet A Way A Lone (1981) is already well known, an essay based on a James Joyce quotation in which he creates an inimitable sound world that is uniquely and unmistakeably his. Nostalgia and a sense of regret are palpable throughout. The most beautiful music comes in Ung’s Spiral III (1900), which the composer likens to the variegated facets of a native handcrafted necklace. The Wellington-based New Zealand String Quartet portrays the ruminative Asian spirit in the music with much trenchancy and sympathy, and has this field all to its own, for now.

The Ultimate Wagner Ring Collection
The Metropolitan Opera
Deutsche Grammophon 479 0638 (2 CDs) / ****1/2

For those who cannot, or will not, sit through the 14 hours or so of Richard Wagner’s epic opera cycle The Ring Of The Nibelung, here is the sure-fire solution. All the important and memorable chunks from the New York Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 live productions conducted by James Levine and Fabio Luisi are condensed into a digestible 159 minutes, with the boring bits left out. The music begins with the dark swirling depths of the River Rhine in Das Rheingold, exults in the incest of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Der Walküre, charts the rise of the quintessential Wagnerian hero in Siegfried, before closing with Brünnhilde’s immolation and the destruction of Valhalla in Gotterdammerung.

There is no synopsis provided, instead an essay linking the cycle with the legacy it probably inspired, Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings and the Star Wars movies. No matter, the glory of this set is the star-studded casting, boasting Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund), Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde) and the marvellous Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried). The 20 minutes of love music from Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the third opera are an unforgettable treat. Despite Wagner’s particular odious character flaws, the sheer beauty and magnetism of his music almost exonerate him. Here is Wagner without tears indeed.

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