Thursday, 7 November 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, November 2013)

Piano Concertos
BBC Scottish Symphony / Lukasz Borowicz
Hyperion 67958 / ****1/2

How many Polish composers who came between Chopin and Szymanowski can you name? If you remembered Moszkowski, Scharwenka, Paderewski or Godowsky, that is not bad at all. Now meet Wladyslaw Zelenski (1837-1921) and Aleksander Zarzycki (1834-1895), whose names are hardly breathed outside their homeland. Both with professors and directors of the Warsaw Music Institute, leading lights of Polish musical society, with the former being the slightly better known. 

To Zelenski’s credit, his Piano Concerto in E flat major (1903) does not imitate Chopin but is anachronistic for its time, the Romantic and martial strains in the outer moments coming from an earlier age. The second movement is a moving and dramatic theme and variations filled with tension and bluster.

Zarzycki’s Piano Concerto in A flat major (1859-60), a shorter work in two movements, combines Lisztian flair with the delicious humour to be found in Saint-Saëns. Capping it is a Grand Polonaise in E flat major composed during the same period, which is every bit as good and memorable as Chopin’s own orchestrated Grand Polonaise Brillante (Op.22). British pianist Jonathan Plowright, a specialist in Polish music, gives highly spirited performances that can only win new friends for his cause. 

The Rock / Symphonic Dances
Bergen Philharmonic / Andrew Litton
BIS 1751 / ****1/2

This CD brings together the major orchestral works of Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) outside of his three symphonies and choral symphony The Bells, spanning his youth, maturity and his final years. Composed in 1893, The Rock was his first major tone poem, based on a Chekhov short story The Meeting. Though resembling his mentor Tchaikovsky’s style, his flair for pathos and the dramatic is already evident. More mature is Isle Of The Dead (1909), inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same title, coming from the same period as his Second Symphony and Third Piano Concerto. Its lugubrious opening builds up to a heady climax with some of Rachmaninov’s most ecstatic and chilling music.

Symphonic Dances (1942) was Rachmaninov’s last work, sometimes regarded to be his unnumbered symphony. Its three movements are a nostalgic glance of his forsaken homeland. Music of melancholy, a haunting Tolstoyan waltz, and the pomp of the Orthodox Church (including quotes of the medieval chant Dies Irae and his choral Vespers) make this in certain ways, his most Russian piece. Norway’s finest orchestra led by Andrew Litton (who recently guest-conducted the SSO) captures the moods and nuances perfectly.

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