Thursday, 17 October 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, October 2013)

Complete RCA & Columbia Albums
Sony Classical (24 CDs) / ****1/2

Gary Graffman is better known today as the teacher of Lang Lang and Wang Yuja at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Born in 1928 to Russian emigrants in USA, he studied with both Vladimir Horowitz and Rudolf Serkin. Hence his recordings which date from 1956 to 1979 (when he was forced to “retire” because of focal dystonia affecting his right hand) have strong Russian and German inclinations. He still performs on occasion but only of works for the left hand alone. Pride of place go to his piano concerto recordings of Rachmaninov (No.2 and Paganini Rhapsody), Tchaikovsky (all three) and Prokofiev (Nos.1 and 3), which have the rich Russian sound, which is fulsome, passionate and imbued with emotional heft.

His generation, known as the OYAPs (Outstanding Young American Pianists), was equally strong in the Austro-German classics. Four Beethoven Sonatas and the Third Piano Concerto, together with Schubert (Wanderer Fantasy and Sonata D.959) and Schumann (Carnaval and Symphonic Etudes) display his sympathy and authority in this repertoire. Any doubts to his virtuosity are immediately dispelled in Brahms’s Paganini and Handel Variations (although there is a bad editing error in the beginning of the latter), Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition and Balakirev’s Islamey. This is rounded up with a performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, which was used in the soundtrack of the Woody Allen movie Manhattan. The original LP artwork and sleeve-notes have been reproduced in miniature, which should please collectors and nostalgics no end. 

Gary Graffman turned a grand 85 on Monday 14 October 2013.
Happy Birthday and Good Health, Gary!

BIS 9044 (4 CDs) / ****1/2

Roland Pöntinen has been the “house pianist” for the Swedish BIS label since its early years in the 1980s, recording a wide and eclectic range of solo, chamber and concertante works. This collection, comprising mostly short pieces and encores, is a cross-section of his catholic tastes, in the manner of those “Piano Albums” conceived by Stephen Hough. The first disc showcases popular and children’s pieces, including Bach’s Prelude in C, Schumann’s Träumerei, Beethoven’s Für Elise and the like. The second disc explores piano’s “Golden Age” and transcriptions from Chopin, Liszt, Rubinstein to Moszkowski and Rachmaninov. He is an ever-tasteful advocate who does not let virtuosity get in the way of music-making.

The fourth disc, incorporating his album Cinerama, is most unusual in featuring Pöntinen’s own improvisations of movie music from Amarcord (Nino Rota) and Diva (Vladimir Cosma). Erik Satie’s  dreamy Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes, dancehall music Fantasie-Valse and Je Te Veux (I Want You) make stark contrasts with rhythmic Iberian-flavoured dances by Spaniards Albeniz, Falla, Granados and Argentine Ginastera. The added bonuses take the form of excellent readings of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the Bamberg Symphony conducted by Leif Segerstam. Over five hours of enjoyable piano music here retail at super-budget price.

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