Thursday, 1 August 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2013)

SHOSTAKOVICH Symphonies No.1 & 5
London Philharmonic / Royal Concertgebouw / Bernard Haitink
Decca 478 4214 / ****1/2

The Soviet-era Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) wrote 15 symphonies, essays which he referred to as “tombstones for the victims of Stalin”, that spanned his entire compositional career. Here are his two most accessible symphonies, ideal starting points for listeners wishing to explore his absorbing and intriguing legacy. The First Symphony (1925), composed when he was still a student of 19, reveals a striking originality, freshness of ideas and trademark dark humour that was to follow the rest of his life. Listen for the subtle quote from Wagner’s Tristan And Isolde in the finale, setting the precedent for further Wagner quotations in his Fifteenth Symphony.

The Fifth Symphony (1937) marked a landmark of his rehabilitation from “Western decadence” in the eyes of the Stalinist authorities. Its four movements, outwardly depicting struggle and ultimate triumph of the will, were deliberately ambiguous. Inwardly, they reflect a people oppressed under the yoke of authoritarianism. This is a super-budget-priced reissue of recordings by Dutch master Bernard Haitink from the early 1980s, when Shostakovich’s legacy was still being hotly debated. Was he a rebel or an apparatchik? The performances are technically impeccable, recorded in pristine sound, and tend to the more objective of views. Look to the late Russian conductors, notably Kirill Kondrashin (on Melodiya), for a more personally nuanced approach.

EMI Classics 433316 2 (3 CDs) / ****

Must every collection of pipe organ music begin with J.S.Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D minor? It is predictably the case with this budget box-set that crams 50 tracks within three discs. So it is better to start with CD 3, devoted to the great French organ tradition. It begins with Le Jardin Espendu and Litanies by Jehan Alain, killed in battle action at the age of 29 during the Second World War. Maurice Durufl√©’s Prelude & Fugue On The Name Of Alain, which quotes the theme from Litanies, is also included here. Two movements from Leon Boellmann’s Suite Gothique are heard, and has anyone noticed that his imperious Toccata has the same melody as our Di Tanjung Katong? Virtuoso fare by Gigout, Mulet and Bonnet beckons, and the set closes with the finale from Saint-Saens’s Organ Symphony.

Baroque music occupies CD 1, and it is not just Bach, but Buxtehude, Clerambault, Couperin, Daquin and Handel’s most famous organ concerto, nicknamed The Cuckoo And The Nightingale. CD 2 has the wedding favourites; Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary, Purcell’s Trumpet Tune and Widor’s Toccata are all here. The roster of organists is distinguished, including Simon Preston, Nicholas Kynaston (who inaugurated Victoria Concert Hall’s Klais organ), Jane Parker-Smith and Wayne Marshall among them. To the record label’s credit, even the locations of the individual organs have been named. There are no accompanying notes, but this is a pretty good sampler for budding organ enthusiasts and beginners.

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