Thursday, 27 June 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, June 2013)

The Champagne Pianist
EMI Classics 679086 2 (10 CDs) / *****

This handsome box-set provides a timely reassessment of the recorded legacy of legendary Bulgarian-born pianist Alexis Weissenberg (1929-2011). He had suffered bad press durin his later years, accused of an overly objective and unemotional view of the classics. This could not be further from the truth. The popular piano concertos, Tchaikovsky’s No.1 and Rachmaninov’s No.2 (timed at 40 minutes and 38 minutes respectively), take on an unusually expansive scale, despite having the usually business-like Herbert von Karajan at the helm. These do not sound sluggish or cautious in the least. Likewise in Rachmaninov’s No.3 with Leonard Bernstein, its staggering 47 minutes begin very leisurely but rightly builds up a head of steam by the time the 1st movement’s cadenza is reached.

This cross-section of Weissenberg’s oeuvre shows him at his most eclectic. His own freely improvised cadenzas for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 make very interesting listening. His view of both Chopin concertos is unsentimental, and Brahms No.1 comes across as mightily stolid. These are contrasted by a flashy Prokofiev No.3, and a penchant for syncopated idioms, with Ravel’s G major Concerto and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and I Got Rhythm Variations in full tilt. His disc of Bach transcriptions, with a view to monumentality rather than authenticity, is excellent.  The encore album of assorted short pieces is also enjoyable, closing with his teacher Pancho Vladigerov’s jazzy Improvisation. His unique insights – urbane with a touch of the eccentric – are unlikely to be repeated.  

Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin
Deutsche Grammophon 479 0571 / ****

This concept album by British violinist Daniel Hope is founded on “music of the spheres”, the harmony of the worlds that transcends time, place and universes. He ponders: is there music beyond our insignificant existence, and what is the sound of the cosmos? All this nebulousness is translated into 75 minutes of still, quiet, serene and tonal music, easy listening for the ultimate chill out.

The usual suspects are here, including J.S.Bach (his Prelude in E minor) and Arvo Part (the ubiquitous Fratres). Whatever one thinks of the soppiness of Ludovico Einaudi (I Giorni and Passaggio) or Karl Jenkins (Benedictus from The Armed Man), they certainly could write tunes to save their lives. Also throw in some minimalists – Philip Glass (Echorus, a homage to the humanity of Yehudi Menuhin) and Michael Nyman (Trysting Fields from the Peter Greenaway movie Drowning By Numbers) into the mix.

Sound bites from younger composers like Lera Auerbach, Elena Kats-Chernin, Max Richter, Gabriel Prokofiev (Sergei’s grandson), Alex Baranowski, Aleksei Igudesman and Karsten Gundermann, touched with New Age sensitivities and here you have it all. Hope plays with much sensitivity and beauty. That the best music comes from Fauré’s choral piece Cantique de Jean Racine says it all; the whole seems less than the sum of its parts.

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