Thursday, 2 January 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, January 2014)

Complete Album Collection
Sony Classical (23 CDs) / *****

This handsome box-set was issued in honour of Leon Fleisher’s 85th birthday this year. He belonged to the “lost generation” of American pianists born during the 1920s and 30s whose careers were curtailed by death, illness or early retirement. Fleisher’s affliction was focal dystonia which for several decades robbed him the use of his right hand. Before that, he had produced some of the best recordings of Beethoven and Brahms piano concertos with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell, solidly musical and no-nonsense accounts which still stand the test of time.

These have been lovingly reproduced with the original LP designs and sleeve-notes. Also issued are several rarities appearing on disc for the first time, including Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody, Franck’s Symphonic Variations and Hindemith’s Four Temperaments, concerte works based on the theme and variations form. Collectors will also treasure his fine recording of Brahms’s Piano Quintet with the Juilliard Quartet and piano music by 20th century American composers Copland, Kirshner and Sessions. 

There are three CDs which document Fleisher’s years as a left handed pianist, featuring a solo recital, left hand piano concertos (by Ravel, Britten and Prokofiev) and chamber music by Korngold and Franz Schmidt. The final CD from 2009 sees a glorious return to playing with both hands in Mozart piano concertos (No.12 and 23, both in A major) and the Double Piano Concerto (K.242) alongside his former student and present wife Katherine Jacobson. Here is a great career in music translated into a feast for the ears.

Chandos 10770 / ****1/2

This is Volume One of a highly promising survey of British violin sonatas from the excellent British duo of Tasmin Little and Piers Lane. The music of the two major sonatas by William Walton (composed 1947-49) and Howard Ferguson (1946) is gratifyingly tonal, tinged with a bittersweet lyricism from that bygone age. The 1950s and 60s would later usher in an age of atonalism that altered the face of music for several decades. The Walton, which shares a similar aesthetic as his celebrated Violin Concerto, is unusual in having just two movements, the second is an absorbing set of variations on a simple theme. The Ferguson is more traditional, in three movements, but no less enjoyable.
The true rarity is Benjamin Britten very early and eclectic Suite Op.6 (1934-35) which comprises four character studies as movements. A feel of the burlesque and grotesquerie occupy the March, Moto Perpetuo (Perpetuel Motion) and final Waltz. Those who enjoy his very accessible Piano Concerto (also from the 1930s) will appreciate his ironic sense of humour here. An added bonus are two short pieces by Walton from 1948-50, a Canzonetta and Scherzetto, dedicated to the Brangelina of that era, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Little, known for championing rarely-performed known British works, produces a sweet and beguiling tone, gloriously backed by the ever-sensitive Lane.

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