Thursday, 9 January 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, January 2014)

BRAHMS The Symphonies
Gewandhausorchester /
Decca 478 5344 (3 CDs) / *****
Here is the Brahms symphony cycle people have been waiting for. Following the critical success of the earlier Beethoven cycle, the Gewandhausorchester (Leipzig) and Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly bring out performances which the finicky German composer  (1833-1897) would have approved. Stripped away are decades of traditionally slow tempos and portentousness, in its place transparency and vitality. The First Symphony, dubbed “Beethoven’s Tenth”, has both drama and heft, and its coupling the Third Symphony, is coloured with a vehemence it rarely receives.    

Freshness rules the pastoral Second Symphony, one that does not get overly rustic, while the overall sweep achieved in the Fourth Symphony often makes one forget rival performances. For the curious, a four bar prelude to the last symphony (one that foretells the Passacaglia finale) and an also discarded earlier version of the slow movement from the First Symphony have been included separately. A generous third disc houses the Haydn Variations, Tragic Overture, Academic Festival Overture, three Hungarian Dances and several orchestrated Liebeslieder Waltzes and Intermezzos. This excellent set is for keeps.

Singapore Chinese Orchestra / YEH TSUNG
SCO Recordings / ****1/2
This album of contemporary Japanese and Chinese music highlights the common ground shared by two different and distinct Eastern cultures. The wadaiko drum, a close relation of the dagu, is employed to explosive effect in Isao Matsushita’s Hi-Ten-Yu, depicting a metaphorical journey from earth to heaven. Eitetsu Hayashi, who gave the European Premiere with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2000, is the brilliant soloist in this ritualistic work that builds from an eerie calm to a frenzied and ecstatic climax. The visual impact of such a vigorous work is unfortunately lost in an audio recording.

The shakuhachi or Japanese bamboo flute gets an airing in two works. Chinese composer Zhao Ji Ping’s Monk Jianzhen Sailing Eastward, about the Tang dynasty Chinese monk who introduced a particular sect of Buddhism into Japan, sees father and son duo of Hozan and Shinzan Yamamoto work mastering different registers of the instrument in a double concerto. The most melodious work is Matsushita’s Dance Of The Firmament, commissioned by the SCO in 2007, which brings together elements of both cultures in what might be viewed as music of the spheres. It is a suitably rowdy affair, with soloist and ensemble in its element, but closes with a sublime and quiet shakuhachi solo. The SCO ensemble has this field to its own.    

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