Thursday, 18 July 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, July 2013)

Decca 478 2939 / ****1/2

With this disc, Vladimir Ashkenazy completes his survey of the complete piano music of Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) which began with his first album for the Decca label in 1963. Admittedly these are not among the best music of the great Russian pianist-composer, mostly short works, studies and salon pieces written as a student. However Rachmaninov thought enough of them to smuggle in a suitcase when he left Russia for the West, never to return.

The best known are the seven Morceaux de Salon (Op.10), including the melancholic Barcarolle and playful Humoresque, which Rachmaninov recorded himself.  Much less often heard are his recently discovered carillon-laden Piano Piece in A flat major, the vertiginous Fugue in D minor, Prelude in F major (better known in its cello version) and the Oriental Sketch, a “railway” piece inspired by the Orient Express. Also included are the four character pieces originally designated as his Op.1, before being displaced by the First Piano Concerto.

Ashkenazy plays his own transcription of the song Sad Is The Night (Noch Pechal’na) Op.26 No.2, an exquisite gem in its own right. The set concludes with Rachmaninov’s virtually unknown transcription of Nunc Dimittis from his choral masterpiece Vespers Op.37, a  reflection of his Russian Orthodox faith. Ashkenazy shows little sign of his age as he rewinds the clock in these revealing performances. The music of Rachmaninov has never had a truer or more complete champion.   

Singapore Chinese Orchestra / TSUNG YEH
SCO / ****1/2

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) conducted by Tsung Yeh has produced several CDs over the years, and this double-disc set is a compilation of its most representative recordings. It reveals the ensemble to be a rather versatile outfit. SCO’s principal musicians are found at their expressive best in concertante works. Concertmaster Li Baoshun on the gaohu weaves a tale of fantasy in Liu Xi Jin’s Legend Of The Merlion, while erhu exponent Zhao Jianhua shines in the better-known Great Wall Capriccio by Liu Wen Jin. Both huqin concertos are very listenable alternatives to the over-performed Butterfly Lovers and Yellow River Concertos.

Espousing the idea of Nanyang music is Law Wai Lun’s Prince Sang Nila Utama And Singa, based on the Temasekian legend of how Singapore got its name, with its distinctly Indonesian-sounding themes. The Celestial Web, also by the current SCO composer-in-residence, has more universal aspirations with texts by local artist Tan Swie Hian. Tan Dun’s Fire Ritual, using music for the movie Nanjing 1937, exploits his idea of “orchestral theatre”, with instruments and voices simulating characters within a staged play. As encores, the Chris Brubeck Trio joins the orchestra to jam in Paul Desmond’s Take Five and Dave Brubeck’s Koto Song, in a live concert that elicits plenty of applause. All in all, this is two-and-a-half hours of enthralling listening.

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