Thursday, 8 August 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2013)

JOHN OGDON Legendary British Virtuoso
EMI Classics 704637 2 (17 CDs) / *****

If there were a British pianist qualified to be called a super-virtuoso, that would be the late John Ogdon (1937-1989). This is a largest single edition of his recordings, drawn from the EMI Classics back catalogue dating from 1960 to 1976. He blazed a meteoric trail following a joint win with Vladimir Ashkenazy at the 1962 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, but was plagued by manic depression from the early-1970s. He made a short comeback in the mid-1980s but died from pneumonia (some say suicide-related), aged just 52. He savoured big repertoire works with an “omnivorous appetite” and “a primeval hunger for notes”, championing Busoni’s monumental Piano Concerto and Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH (all 86 minutes of it), both included here in blistering performances.

Ogdon was himself a composer, and one gets to hear his Piano Concerto No.1, Piano Sonata and Theme & Variations, modernistic but tonal works, alongside modern composers like Bartok, Tippett, Messiaen, Dutilleux, his contemporaries Sherlaw Johnson, Goehr and Headington just to name a few. This set also features more popular repertoire, including concertos and solo music by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Schumann, Grieg, Chopin and Liszt, on which he also left an indelible mark. The final disc comprises delightful encore pieces. Which serious pianist today has time for Cecile Chaminade’s Automne, Cyril Scott’s Lotus Land (influenced by the Orient) or Sinding’s Rustle of Spring? Maybe Stephen Hough, but Ogdon was a one-off and his kind may never be seen again.

DVORAK Symphony No.9
Czech Suite / My Home
Malaysian Philharmonic / CLAUS PETER FLOR
BIS 1856 / *****

This might just be the last recording on the BIS label by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra as we know it. Embroiled in a controversy that saw the non-renewal of nine key and long-serving musicians last year, a worldwide boycott of the orchestra may have also adversely affected its future recording prospects. Nevertheless these 2009 recordings of popular and lesser-known Dvorak reveal exceptionally fine playing all around. The over-recorded New World Symphony does not suffer from over-familiarity in the slightest, and it sounds fresh and revitalised, served by excellent sound. The Largo is wonderfully atmospheric and the Slavonic dances of the final two movements simply bristle with excitement.

The fillers are well chosen. If the symphony pointed to native and Afro-American sources, Dvorak’s overture My Home (not his own title but one proffered by his publisher) and Czech Suite find their inspirations from his Bohemian homeland. The overture uses two popular local songs while the suite includes in its five movements rustic dances like the polka and furiant. Listen also for the drone-like bagpipe effects in its opening Pastorale. Not his greatest music, but when played as beautifully here, it is well worth the listen. It is hoped that no one gets to say that “The MPO was once a great orchestra”.        

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