Thursday, 30 January 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, January 2014)

RACHMANINOV The Piano Concertos
London Symphony / Michael Francis
Decca 478 4890 (2 CDs) / *****

This album has an interesting back story. Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa, on her way to becoming an Internet celebrity (with close to 60 million hits on YouTube), staked her life savings and mortgaged her home to record Rachmaninov’s five piano concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2009-10. Having neither performed nor rehearsed with the orchestra and conductor Michael Francis, the recording was wrapped up without fuss in a matter of days. Far from being a vanity project, the cycle comes across as one of the freshest takes on this over-exposed and over-recorded sector of the repertoire.

Her tempos are generally brisk; listen to the opening of the Third Concerto for example. She eschews sentimentality for its own sake, and her passion is expressed through a litheness in approach rather than the bombast and over-playing usually associated with these scores. When push comes to shove, she delivers with Amazonian heft. The big cadenza in the Third Concerto’s first movement has rarely sounded this emphatic without resorting to pounding, and the visceral thrills of the finale overflow as if in a live performance. There is also much to enjoy in the less-played First and Fourth Concertos, displaying lyricism and dissonance in equal measure. The familiar Second Concerto and Paganini Rhapsody have a freshness that demands re-acquaintance. In summary, a treasurable cycle to have alongside Rachmaninov’s invaluable and inimitable own set.   

Violin Sonatas
Naxos 8.110989 / *****

It is not a great secret that the best years of Lord Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) as a violinist were his earlier years. This album of violin sonatas recorded on the His Master’s Voice (HMV) label between 1936 and 1940 capture that spark of youth and prodigiousness that went missing as he aged. Maturity was never a question in these performances by someone just out of his teens. The silky control and singing tone in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in E flat major (Op.12 No.3) and the playfulness of its Rondo reflect a master who still retained the wide-eyed wonderment of juvenile pursuits.

The coupling of sonatas by Cesar Franck (1822-1890) and Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894), juxtaposing the popular and obscure, is most apt. The latter was a student of the former, and both sonatas employ the cyclical form popularised by Franck, where major themes are re-introduced later in the work. Menuhin and his younger sister Hephzibah were the first duo ever to record the Lekeu, and this 1938 reading of the 32-minute-long underrated masterpiece of lyricism and reflection is a revelation. Their partnership is telepathic and the balance is captured perfectly in the remastering by Ward Marston which eliminates most of the crackles and hiss. Listen, enjoy and understand what the fuss the young Menuhin was all about.

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