Thursday, 22 August 2013

CD Reviews (August 2013, The Straits Times)

Mirare 189 / *****

Erik Satie (1866-1925) was an important figure in French music, a guiding light for the cause of simplicity and transparency, opposing the Teutonic complexities of Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg and their kind who were dictating the course of musical expression. He was the master of the piano miniature, the epitome being his three Gymnopedies and six Gnossiennes, the refreshing terseness and drolleries of which can only be imitated. He also delighted in unpretentious frivolities of the dancehall, the silliness coming through explicitly in his suites Le Belle Excentrique, Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear, and the little waltz Le Piccadilly.

Veteran French pianist Anne Queffélec astutely plays these in small groups, separated by music of Satie’s contemporaries, friends and allies. Debussy impressionisms are omitted, instead we hear his dreamy Reverie, Clair de lune and The Little Negro (first cousin to the Golliwogg’s Cakewalk), while Ravel is represented by his little known Fanfare (for 4 hands) and In the Manner of Chabrier, where the subject is improvising on a Gounod tune. The French belle époque is relived in Reynaldo Hahn’s Le Banc Songeur (The Bench Dreamer), Frontispiece and Hivernale, and assorted shorts by Deodat de Severac (The Old Music Box), Charles Koechlin, Florent Schmitt, Francis Poulenc and Pierre-Octave Ferroud. One cannot imagine these performed with more intimacy or sensitivity.

Chandos 10741 / ****1/2

Works for cello and piano by British Romantic composers are not exactly familiar in these parts, but this new series by the Welsh duo of Paul and Huw Watkins aims to change that. The Cello Sonata of 1879-80 by Hubert Parry (1848-1918) owes a debt of influence to Brahms, whom he had hoped to study with. Like his idol, Parry’s creative use of simple themes and melodies build into memorable moments which amply fill its 27 minutes.

Of the same stature is the Sonata (1905) by John Foulds (1880-1939), the only composer in this anthology who was a professional cellist himself.  Also highly tonal, its slightly more dissonant idiom gives it a grittier edge in the outer movements, while the central slow movement is achingly beautiful, much in the manner which Elgar used to tug at the heartstrings. 

The single-movement Sonata (1916) by Frederick Delius (1862-1934) is typical of his quasi-impressionist style, reflective and ruminative, having the quality of a fantasy. Hamabdil (1919) by Granville Bantock (1868-1948), who was not Jewish, is a Hebrew melody (sung at the end of Sabbath) reminiscent of Bruch’s familiar Kol Nidrei. Indeed this miniature is the one most likely to be heard again, but in reality, all the works deserve to be better known, given the highly committed playing and ardent advocacy. Warmly recommended.

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