Thursday, 3 October 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, October 2013)

KAM NING, Violin
Meridien 84619 / *****

The music of America in the 20th century was distinguished by a plethora of styles, including serialism, minimalism and a movement that advocated a return to tonality by assimilating and re-adapting popular idioms. It is the latter two that are explored in this highly accessible anthology of Americana. John Adams’s Road Movies is the highlight, the outer two movements – Relaxed Groove and 40% Swing - depart from the mind-numbing repetitiveness of pioneer minimalists, instead delighting in its expert dovetailing of rhythmic precision and melodic interest. The Violin Sonata of John Corigliano (who composed the score of The Red Violin) is more traditional; its four movements retracing the well-worn path treaded by American icons Copland and Barber.

On the subject of film music, Charlie Chaplin’s Smile from Modern Times gets a sensuous and slicked-up treatment. John Novacek’s Four Rags are highly enjoyable, an update on Scott Joplin’s ragtime fantasies and equal to William Bolcom’s sophisticated classics. Both violinist Kam Ning and pianist Albert Tiu, with studies in America well behind them, closely identify with these works, bringing a stunning panache, infectious elan and zeal. Kam Ning’s own country-inspired solo improvisation of the church hall favourite Amazing Grace, both soulful and exuberant, brings the disc to a brilliant close. A small point in nomenclature: reformed English slave-trader John Newton only wrote the words, the actual composer of the hymn remains unknown. Here is an hour more than well spent.

MAHLER Symphony No.9
Los Angeles Philharmonic / GUSTAVO DUDAMEL
Deutsche Grammophon 479 0924 (2 CDs) / ****1/2

Gustav Mahler’s last completed symphony, his Ninth, was composed in 1909, and is widely regarded as his swansong. Here it receives an expansive “live” performance by the Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, one of the longest in the recorded repertoire. At over 86 minutes, it is only exceeded by Otto Klemperer’s legendary 1967 recording with the New Philharmonia on EMI Classics. The two slow movements, the first and the fourth, contribute to its monumentality, a lingering contemplation about mortality.

From the slight erratic heartbeat (Mahler suffered a fatal complication of rheumatic heart disease) of its opening to the ebbing embers of the final Adagio, this is a performance that truly moves. If there is any quibble, that would be in the 3rd movement’s Rondo Burleske which despite its frenetic pace sounds underpowered and insufficiently ironic. The playing is very fine and recorded sound splendid. There is minimal audience noise and no applause has been included. The double CD set has been priced as a single premium disc. For a modern account of this classic by one of classical music’s indefatigable “Young Turks”, look no further. 

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