Thursday, 7 March 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, March 2013)

PIXIS & THALBERG Piano Concertos
Tasmanian Symphony
Hyperion 67915 / ****1/2

What happened to the piano concerto genre between Mozart and Chopin? Composers like Hummel, Weber and Mendelssohn provide certain clues in their piano music, as do the lesser-known pianist-composers Johann Peter Pixis (1788-1874) and Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871), who were virtuosos in their time and all but forgotten now. Friends and rivals with both Chopin and Liszt, their stylistically conservative music paralleled aesthetics of the bel canto opera tradition, personified by the arias of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini.  Allied with scintillating virtuoso traditions of the day, this meant strength in cantabile melody and ornamental excesses to the point of fussiness.

Despite the triteness of invention and inspiration, the C major Concerto (1829) and E flat major Concertino (1824) of Pixis may be enjoyed on their own terms. One should not expect dissonances, dynamic surprises or others innovation, but just bask in the sheer congeniality. At least his slow movements sound like proto-Chopinesque nocturnes. From Thalberg, who once had a pianistic duel with Liszt, one expects just a little more attitude. His F minor Concerto (1830) might just enter the periphery of the standard repertoire, not because of harmonic daring but by its technical demands for the sake of itself. British pianist-conductor Howard Shelley is a specialist of music of this epoch, and does his best to make it sound fresh and inviting. His spirited advocacy succeeds, because one will return to this music again, at least for its easy charms and outward glitter. 

DEBUSSY 24 Préludes
(Orchestrated by Peter Breiner)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Jun Markl
Naxos 8.572584 / ****1/2

The 24 Préludes of Debussy represent an ultimate test for the pianist in crafting a palette of colours on the keyboard, yet they positively beg to be orchestrated. These arrangements by Slovak composer Peter Breiner (who also happens to be Naxos’s house orchestrator for popular tunes and anthems) are both idiomatic and evocative. The preludes are presented in two books, in the order they were published, and the sonorities he creates come close to the spirit of Debussy’s own style.

He conjures up a pastoral mood for The Girl With The Flaxen Hair, raises a tempest-tossed vibe for What The West Wind Saw, and fulminates explosively in the final prelude Fireworks. For Spanish-inspired numbers, such as Interrupted Serenade and The Wine Gate, the deft use of percussion and the rhythms lends the music an exotic flavour. These bear comparison with the orchestrations by Colin Matthews, recorded by the Halle Orchestra on its own label, which have a more modernistic slant. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra is every bit as sympathetic and incisive in its playing, making this a welcome addition to the recorded orchestral canon.    

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