Thursday, 21 March 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, March 2013)

Singaporean Classics

Singapore Original Compositions
For Niibori Guitar Orchestra
NUS Centre For The Arts / ****

A Niibori guitar orchestra is an ensemble formed by nine different groups of guitars, each with specific registers of pitches, functioning like a choir of strummed sonorities. GENUS (Guitar Ensemble of the National University of Singapore) was founded in 1981 by Singapore’s “Father of the Guitar” Alex Abisheganaden and remains the nation’s premier Niibori ensemble. This disc comprises eight works representing three generations of composers associated with the group. Abisheganaden’s own Huan Yin - Vanakam and Gala Nexus (both 1995) are the most traditional and least complex. The former espouses the “Nanyang style” of composition, combining Chinese and Indian influences with its use of the erhu and sitar.

Current GENUS conductor Robert Casteels contributes the most ambitious work, the 20-minute long El Jardin de la Vita y la Muerte (The Garden of Life and Death, 2010) which combines voices, percussion, flamenco dance with the blood ritual of bullfights. Its visual spectacle is unfortunately lost in this audio recording. Taped sounds are heard in City Scape (2012, the chaos of urban construction) by Gao Yang and Casteels, and Kansalesa’s Bones (2011, a dog’s excited whimpers) by Balraj Gopal. Traditional Asian instruments also appear in Gopal’s Satyagraha (2011) and Chua Jon Lin’s Autumn Blues (2011). Finally, The Phunk Experiment (2011) by NUS students Alvin Ng and Calista Lee, a very listenable pop-inspired number with synthesisers and the disco beat, represents the future of the ensemble. Listen, and be surprised.

This recording retails at $10 and is available at the GENUS Concert on 24 March 2013

Guitar Ensemble of NUS
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory 
24 March 2013, 7.30 pm  
Tickets at $16 

Tel: Stephen at 9891 3312  

Naxos 8.501059 (10 CDs) / ***1/2

It looks like the major record labels have come up with the strategy of marketing multiple-disc sets, which retail at below super-budget price (at $6 per disc)  to entice the potential buyer as CD sales fall worldwide. With Naxos’s vast catalogue accrued over 25 years, it is possible to do just that. However, does one really want to hear the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra from Katowice conducted by Adrian Leaper and Antoni Wit play Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies? The performances and recordings are more than competent but hardly world-beating. The same would apply to Prokofiev’s First and Fifth Symphonies or Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony from the national orchestras of Ukraine and Ireland respectively.

There are however exceptions, like an excellent Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, with its agonised final pages (very Russian indeed!) milked to the max from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by the dynamic young Russian Vasily Petrenko, or Borodin’s Second Symphony from the Seattle Symphony with Gerard Schwarz. The Shostakovich Seventh Symphony “Leningrad from the Russian Philharmonic and Dmitry Yablonsky is also highly competitive. The rarities here are little-known symphonies by Glazunov, Kalinnikov and Myaskovsky, included for good measure. Naxos provides full programme notes, which are a definite plus for the first time listener. A gauntlet has been thrown for the Universal group of labels and their big-name orchestras to beat, which should not be too difficult.

This box-set retails at $59.90 at HMV 

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