Thursday, 11 July 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, July 2013)

MEDTNER Piano Sonatas Vol.1
Grand Piano 617 / ****1/2

The music of Russian pianist composer Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) is not so much obscure as it is neglected. His is as cerebral as his contemporary and close friend Rachmaninov is visceral, but repeated listening brings its rewards. This new piano sonata cycle by Canadian pianist Paul Stewart contrasts the “familiar” with the obscure. The single-movement Sonata Reminiscenza (Op.38 No.1, from his cycle of Forgotten Melodies) qualifies to be his most famous piece, even though it is much less often performed than Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata. The melancholic spirit so typical of the Slavs is worn heart-on-sleeve, and there is even a tumultuous outburst in its middle as a show of passion to unsettle the spirits.

Its quarter-hour of nostalgia is relatively brief heard alongside the 35 minutes and four movements of the Sonata in F minor (Op.5), his first essay in the genre. The moodiness and restlessness of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, also in the same key, is recalled, and Medtner’s thematic cohesion (he rarely allows one to forget his ideas) marks him as a master of the sonata form. The early Sonatina in G minor, composed as an 18-year-old, provides a clue to his quite unmistakeable style which he had honed from young. The playing is both spirited and stylish, suitably brooding but never histrionic or over-characterised, which makes the rest of the cycle worth waiting for. 

BEETHOVEN String Trios Op.9
Trio Zimmerman
BIS SACD-1857 / *****

Before Beethoven composed his six string quartets Op.18 and went on to redefine the genre, he wrote string trios. Comprising just a violin, viola and cello, the medium has lighter and more transparent textures, but from the great German as a young man sprung forth the gravitas of his later works. The three Trios of Op.9, composed in 1796-98, are undoubted masterpieces, even if overshadowed by the quartets. The first movement of the First Trio in G major is a weighty 12 minutes of pure sonata form, almost like an opening movement of a symphony. Its furious finale has a theme which he re-uses in his First Symphony several years later.

The Second Trio in D major, the lightness and shortest of the three, has the feel of a serenade. The Third Trio in C minor begins with sonorous drama and tragedy, but transforms to litheness and humour, concluding with a jocular Presto that looks forward to its counterpart in the First Quartet of the Op.18 set. Trio Zimmerman, led by German violinist Frank Peter Zimmerman, with violist Antoine Tamestit and cellist Christian Poltera, play with precision and beauty, making the best case possible for these underrated classics. The famous 1990s recording by Anne-Sophie Mutter, Bruno Guiranna and Mstislav Rostropovich (Deutsche Grammophon) has not been reissued, so this BIS SACD is the one to have. One cannot imagine these being played better.

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