Thursday, 5 December 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, December 2013)

 SZYMANOWSKI Symphonies Nos.1 & 2
London Symphony / VALERY GERGIEV
LSO Live 0731 / ****1/2

Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), widely hailed as the greatest Polish composer after Chopin, wrote four symphonies. While the latter two get occasional airings in concerts, the first two are rarely performed. These earlier works illustrate his eclectic and evolving style which mirrored the progressive and rapid erosion of tonality in Europe at the turn of the century. The First Symphony in F minor (1906-07) is in two movements, and was never completed. Its sound palette continues where Wagner’s seminal opera Tristan And Isolde left off and shares the same feverish atmosphere as Schoenberg’s early tonal scores. Although Szymanowski despised it, the music does make an impressive impact.

The Second Symphony in B flat major (1909-10) is a finer and more mature work. It shares the same volatile spirit as its predecessor, but the aesthetics are now more aligned with the opulence of Richard Strauss and Scriabin. An opening theme heard on solo violin is its recurring motif that unites its sprawling half-hour duration. The second movement is an elaborate theme and variations, culminating in a mighty final fugue, as if to display his academic credentials. The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev gives marvellous live performances (recorded in late 2012), and its audience is remarkably quiet. The music deserves nothing less.    

Rotterdam Philharmonic
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Conductor
Deutsche Grammophon 481 0131 / ****1/2

This is young Austrian clarinettist Andreas Ottensamer’s debut album on the famed German yellow label, just under an hour of clarinet concertos and encores. He is a versatile as they come, equally at home with the classical repertoire and modern works. He weaves a luscious creamy tone in the opening of Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto (famously recorded by Benny Goodman) before extrovertly breaking out into jazz-inspired runs which make this work such a hit.

The Clarinet Concerto by Italian Domenico Cimarosa, better known for his operas, is arranged from a keyboard sonata by Arthur Benjamin (the Australian-born composer of Jamaican Rumba). Its clean classical lines, beautifully shaped, evoke the mellifluous operatic arias of the period. With the First Clarinet Concerto by Louis Spohr, one arrives at the golden age of the clarinet, where an outsized virtuoso technique becomes a pre-requisite in meeting the music’s acrobatic demands. Ottensamer delivers with panache, and the three short works orchestrated by Stephan Koncz that precede each concerto are well chosen. Gershwin’s First Prelude, Debussy’s Girl With The Flaxen Hair and Amy Beach’s Berceuse are totally enjoyable as well.

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