Thursday, 28 November 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, November 2013)

GRIFFES Piano Music
Hyperion 67907 / *****

Anyone who attended the wonderful piano recital by Abigail Sin on 5 March would have been intrigued by the Piano Sonata (1917-18) of American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920). It is a relatively short but violent essay in three movements that sounded primeval and exotic, even oriental in character and feel. This was the unusual sound world of an exceptional talent, cut short at the prime of his life by complications of influenza. Like all American composers of his generation, he studied in Europe. His piano music, spanning the last ten years of his life, was influenced by the musical trends of the time.

Listen to his Three Tone Pictures, Fantasy Pieces and Roman Sketches (all composed between 1910 and 1916) and one discerns the harmonic innovations spawned by Wagner and his followers, and the impressionist hues of Debussy and Ravel. The titles are equally evocative; The Lake at Evening, Night Winds, White Peacock and Fountains of Acqua Paola are worthy start points. A Winter Landscape curiously employs the same motif as Leoncavallo’s Vesti la giubba from I Pagliacci, but this is probably a coincidence. The late Three Preludes (1919) are short and aphoristic, sounding like Scriabin and point to the future. Veteran American pianist Garrick Ohlsson is a master colourist, and his persuasive manner makes one feel these works cannot be played in any other way. 

FRANK BRIDGE Orchestral Works
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Chandos 10729 (6 CDs) / *****

This year marks the centenary of Benjamin Britten, largely regarded the greatest 20th century British composer, but do spare several thoughts for his most important teacher and mentor Frank Bridge (1879-1941). It was Bridge who helped shape the highly original and modernist voice the young Britten was to become. This budget-priced collection of complete orchestral works includes Bridge’s light music and songs (he could write a good melody too), but the emphasis lies on his symphonic poems and concertante works which exhibit exuberance and boldness of colour. 

The Sea (1910-11) is his best known work, a symphonic suite in four movements that is almost as evocative as the earlier La Mer of Debussy but far less celebrated. Bridge’s penchant for the vivid musical narration is to be found in Mid of The Night (1903), Dance Rhapsody (1908), Dance Poem (1913), Summer (1914-15) and Enter Spring (1926-27), all very well-crafted and deserve a listen. The two major concertos, Oration for cello (1929-30, with Alban Gerhardt as soloist) and Phantasm for piano (1931, with Howard Shelley), are excellent examples of his later style, bristling with dissonance and aggression, as if prescient of the great war to come. These performances from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales led by the late Richard Hickox set a gold standard for this music, and this set is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.

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