Thursday, 13 June 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, June 2013)

WEIGL Isle of The Dead / Six Fantasies
Naxos 8.572423 / ****1/2

The Austrian-Jewish composer Karl Weigl (1881-1949) was witness to the heady years of Mahler’s prime, Korngold’s prodigious childhood and the rise of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Through all of this, he retained a strong foundation of tonality in his works, and any chance of fame was curtailed when he had to emigrate to the United States following the Nazi occupation of his homeland. This album of his piano music is well worth listening for its invention and period charm.

Almost 30 years separate his Night Fantasies (1911) and Six Fantasies (1942), pieces of atmospheric beauty that recall the smouldering lyricism of Richard Strauss. Ironically the earlier set displays a greater level of dissonance, its nocturnes being far more closely aligned to Mahler’s Nachtmusik of his Seventh Symphony than Chopin.   

Toteninsel (Isle Of The Dead) from 1903 was inspired by Arnold Bocklin’s expressionist painting, and predates the famous tone poem by Rachmaninov. Its funeral procession over the River Styx is reminiscent of the gloominess of Liszt’s two late works titled La Lugubre Gondola. More light-hearted are the droll and spiky Dance Of The Furies (1938) and the fantastical imagery of the six Pictures And Tales (1909). Veteran American pianist Joseph Banowetz, champion of the obscure and arcane, breathes into these minor masterpieces a sense of urgency and vitality they fully deserve.  

Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
& Tapiola Sinfonietta
BIS 1992 / *****

This album presents three cello concertos in 67 minutes of unremitting gloom. The composers were moved by the wanton waste and futility of war, from what must be the most violent century in mankind’s history. It is almost 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War, which prompted Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo (1916), a rhapsodic view of King Solomon’s proclamation “All is vanity!” in the book of Ecclesiastes. This is the most recorded of the works, and Steven Isserlis’s eloquent account is stirring and heart-wrenching.

Much less well known is Frank Bridge’s Oration (1930), where the cello’s orator bears witness to the carnage in the mud and trenches, and is inexorably sucked into the quagmire. The relentless march that forms the torso of the single movement work is frightening, as is its mind-numbing vision of young lives facing impending slaughter as if on an assembly line. The quiet and serene ending represents heavenly repose and the hope for peace.

Pianist Stephen Hough’s The Loneliest Wilderness (2005), after words by Herbert Read, mines the same vein. It distils in 16 minutes the sorrow and memories of a lost generation, and is ironically the most approachable of the three works. A listener may begin with this and later move on to Bloch and Bridge, in increasing order of sombreness. The experience is intense but ultimately rewarding.

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