Thursday, 29 August 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2013)

Naxos 8.111366 / *****

This is the musical equivalent of Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, the final recital given by the legendary Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti (1917-1950) in Besancon, France on 16 September 1950. He died less than three months later from Hodgkin’s Disease. This recording taken from a radio broadcast includes two brief snatches of him playing improvised arpeggios, modulating to the key of the work to be performed. This curious practice was relatively common in the first half of the 20th century, and has all but completely disappeared. He does so before Bach’s Partita No.1 and Mozart’s Sonata in A minor (K.310), performances of laser-like clarity and robust stature belying his ill health.

Two Schubert Impromptus (G flat and E flat major) and Chopin’s Waltzes follow. These are played in his own chosen sequence, beginning with the Waltz in A flat major (Op.42). There are wrong notes along the way but Lipatti’s sheer vitality and lust for life lift these miraculous readings to an exalted level. He played 13 waltzes (out of 14), and too exhausted to finish off with the flamboyant A flat major Waltz Op.34 No.1, he substituted it with the Bach-Hess Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring. Unfortunately that was not recorded for posterity. Instead a studio recording of that same waltz from two months before has been included to complete the set. This is a life-affirming document that demonstrates that music has the ability of touching hearts from beyond the grave.

New Zealand Symphony / Carolyn Kuan
Naxos 8.570607 / ****1/2

The title is not a misprint. Asia’s most popular violin concerto, The Butterfly Lovers by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao, has indeed been transcribed as a virtuoso piano concerto. This is not the first recording in its piano guise, having previously being premiered and recorded by the late Chinese pianist Hsu Fei Ping. To Chen Gang’s credit, his transcription is very idiomatic as it employs pianistic capabilities to good effect. All the familiar music is retained. While the solo part is beefed up to include heavy chords, octave passages and added dissonances, there are also some alterations to the orchestration.

One does not miss the violin, even if the Beijing opera vocal inflexions and portamenti (sliding pitches) on strings do not come through as poignantly on the piano. An outcome is the shadow of the Yellow River Piano Concerto looming large through its 27 minutes. Like the inseparable lovers Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai themselves, the coupling is none other than the Yellow River in its umpteenth recording. Unfortunately no one thought of transcribing it into a violin concerto! Young Chinese pianist Chen Jie gives excellent barnstorming accounts of both concertos, and she is alertly partnered by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Well worth several listens.

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