Thursday, 24 October 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, October 2013)

FRANCK Piano Works
Piano Classics 0052 / ****1/2

Pianists and followers of chamber music will be all too aware that in Franco-Belgian composer Cesar Franck’s evergreen Violin Sonata in A major, the piano part is far more technically demanding than the violin part. The glory of this masterpiece is the fine balance struck between the lyrical voice of strings and the keyboard’s thrilling, percussive thunder. But trust the Swiss-born virtuoso Alfred Cortot to transcribe it solely for the piano, such that the ten fingers of a beleaguered pianist have to muster both forces of melody and harmony in an ultimate act of perfect synchronisation. Prize-winning Italian pianist Domenico Codispoti has it all within his grasp, maintaining its precarious tightrope act without sacrificing musicality for virtuosity.

Even if one misses the violin for some moments, organ pipes are all but forgotten in Harold Bauer’s transcription of Franck’s Prelude, Fugue & Variation, originally for organ. The melodic thrust overshadows the counterpoint in this beautifully serene work. Franck’s best known piano work, Prelude, Chorale & Fugue is certainly not organ music reduced for piano. Codispoti’s mastery of its filigreed passages and chordal sonorities however bring an organ-like intensity in its climaxes that are a joy to behold. This is a very satisfying hour of listening, not just for pianophiles.

The Alpha Omega Sound / ****

The Russian violinist Mikhail “Mischa” Elman (1891-1967) was a student of the great Leopold Auer (who also taught Heifetz and Milstein), and is fondly remembered by violin connoisseurs for his sweet and silky tone, generous rubato and portamenti-laden playing that bordered on the sentimental and schmaltz. This recently unearthed 12 May 1955 live performance recorded by SODRE (the Official Service of Radio and Television Broadcasting of Uruguay) in Montevideo shows both sides of his artistry, as serious musician and sophisticated entertainer. One has to listen beyond a moment of serious tape distortion in the first movement of the Handel D major Sonata and creaking floorboards to appreciate why his art was so highly valued.

There is an arch-simplicity to Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata (Op.24), in a performance that simply sings. Though not one of his virtuoso scores, it is nonetheless impressive to hear its heart-on-sleeve lyricism brought out so disarmingly. Here is also a rare performance of Mendelssohn’s popular Violin Concerto in E minor (op.64) accompanied on piano. Elman makes no concessions for this and gives his all, and it is interesting to hear the countermelodies voiced by the piano instead of an orchestra. This rare recording is available through various online retailers. 

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