Tuesday, 31 December 2013

THE PIANOMANIA AWARDS 2013: Best CDs of The Year

The Straits Times is not having its yearly round-up of Best Classical Concerts and Best Classical CDs for 2013, so I have taken upon myself to create The Pianomania Awards to identify the best of the best in a good year for classical music in Singapore.

Here are my three Best Classical Recordings of the year 2013, with an obviously and unashamedly Singaporean bias:

ELGAR Violin Concerto
Orchestra of the Music Makers / Chan Tze Law
OMM Live! / *****

In 1932, Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) conducted and recorded for His Master’s Voice his Violin Concerto in B minor, now considered one of the great recordings of the last century. The soloist was the 16-year-old prodigy Yehudi Menuhin, on his way to becoming one of violin’s immortals. In 2011, 16-year-old Singaporean Gabriel Ng, a student of the Menuhin School, repeated the feat in a concert performance that has been captured in this recording. While it is pointless to compare note-for-note the merits of the two, Ng more than holds his own in a crowded field.

What is astonishing is not just the instrumental achievement, but the sensitivity, sheer warmth and depth of expression he brings to this sprawling work. Just listen to his entry in the 1st movement, or the hush of the accompanied cadenza in the finale. Playing at 47 minutes, he is only slightly faster than Menuhin’s 50 minutes. All the superlatives showered on Menuhin at the time also firmly apply to Ng. Other points of spiritual connection: conductor Chan Tze Law, a committed Elgarian, was a student of Hugh Bean, who in turn was taught by Albert Sammons, the first violinist to record this concerto. The splendid Orchestra of the Music Makers which plays like professionals is, of course, named after Elgar’s choral masterpiece The Music Makers. This is a candidate for Record of the Year, without a doubt.

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.

DVORAK Cello Concerto
BRAHMS Academic Festival Overture
Singapore Symphony Orchestra 
Decca 889 8529 / *****

Perhaps the greatest performance in Singapore of Antonin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor took place on 10 February 2012 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. This is the live recording from that concert, one that highlights not just the virtuosity of Chinese-Australian cellist Li-Wei Qin but also how well the Singapore Symphony Orchestra led by Lan Shui responds as a sympathetic and sensitive accompanist. Very often one is drawn to the quality of the orchestral playing, especially the marvellous woodwind and brass contributions. These rapt moments complement Qin’s gorgeous tone and long-breathed passages on his 1780 J.B.Guadagnini cello. 

A most apt encore was Dvorak’s Silent Woods (known in Czech as Klid), a short but breathtakingly lyrical piece for cello and orchestra transcribed from the suite for piano duet From The Bohemian Forest. Also from the same concert was Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, no mean makeweight that brings together a collection of student songs, closing with the rowdy paean to drink Gaudeamus Igitur. Applause from the concert has been edited out and the audience is remarkably silent, a considerable feat in itself. This disc represents excellence all around.        

Next to Come: Best Classical Concerts of 2013!

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