Thursday, 19 September 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2013)

GRIEG Three Concerti
for Violin & Orchestra
Tromso Chamber Orchestra
Naxos 8.573137 / ****1/2

Music lovers who bemoan that the Norwegian nationalist composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) wrote only one concerto – his Piano Concerto in A minor – will be pleased to learn that his three sonatas for violin and piano have been crafted into violin concertos. True to the intimacy of the originals, these are chamber concertos with mostly light textures, strings spiced up with single woodwinds for contrasts. Listen to how a solo oboe or flute illuminates the central movements of the Second and Third Sonatas respectively, for example. These slow interludes are turned into sumptuous nocturnes.

While the First Sonata owes a debt of influence to Schumann, the latter two are strongly based on Norwegian folk music and dances. Their rusticity, memorable melodies and jaunty rhythms lend a great deal of the charm, especially in the rather popular Third Sonata in C minor (Op.45). Its two predecessors, which share similar qualities, deserve to be better known. The performances by young Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud (also the co-arranger with Bernt Simen Lund) ooze obvious sympathy and musicality, while the Tromso Chamber Orchestra, the only professional chamber ensemble within the Arctic Circle, provides exemplary support. Recommended listening.

Deutsche Grammophon 478 4230 / ****1/2

This super-budget priced anthology is a good way to start sampling 20th century choral music. Many 20th century composers, having turned their backs on atonalism and serialism, found inspiration in the polyphony of early church music. One movement loosely termed as sacred minimalism brought together disparate voices such as the Estonian Arvo Pärt (born 1935), Pole Henryk Gorecki (1933-2010) and Briton John Tavener (born 1944). All three explored their musical paths independently, arriving at tonal palettes that were spiritually moving and aesthetically pleasing, yet without sounding alike. The deep dark voices of Pärt’s De Profundis, rapturous calls for the Virgin Mary in Gorecki’s Totus Tuus and simple austerity in Tavener’s Song for Athene resound beautifully in different ways.

Also in this disc is the iconic Lux Aeterna by the Hungarian Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006), generating a hazy spectrum of otherworldly tones, which film director Stanley Kubrick employed to great effect in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Frenchman Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) develops simple forms into celestial edifices in O Sacrum Convivium! while Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) finds a folk-like charm in his Four Motets on Gregorian Themes. This collection closes with Agnus Dei by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), the choral version of his famous Adagio for Strings. The choirs here include The Sixteen, Gabrieli Consort, Joyful Company of Singers and Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. There are brief notes but no texts or translations, but that should be no deterrence to enjoyable listening. 

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