Thursday, 20 February 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, February 2014)

BRAHMS Complete Piano Music
Deutsche Grammophon 479 1965 (9CDs) 

Despite its title, this is not quite the whole hog. Only German composer Johannes Brahms’s major solo piano works have been included, as well as the better known pieces for piano four hands. Pride of place however go to the reissue of Wilhelm Kempff’s vintage 1950s to 70s recordings of the 20 late pieces (Op.116 to 119), the monumental Third Sonata in F minor (Op.5) and Four Ballades (Op.10). These masterly readings have worn well despite their age. A young and totally musical Daniel Barenboim offers three sets of variations (after Handel, Schumann and the Sextet Op.18), as does the more virtuoso-inclined Tamas Vasary, whose take on the Paganini Variations and the short Op.76 pieces are breathtaking.  

There is fair barnstorming in the First and Second Sonatas from Anatol Ugorsky, who also plays Brahms’s left hand transcription of Bach’s famous Chaconne, originally for violin. The four hands works, including the F minor Sonata (after the Piano Quintet), Haydn Variations and 21 Hungarian Dances, from Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky sound staid by comparison. As a bonus, the ninth disc houses Brahms’s Chorale Preludes and Preludes & Fugues for organ, performed by Peter Planyavsky. Here is an inexpensive way to discover the length and breadth of this very interesting repertoire.

MEDTNER Violin Sonatas Nos.1 & 3
Hyperion 67963 / *****

The violin sonatas of Russian composer Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) are even more obscure than his piano sonatas, but this should not be so given their quality and accessibility. His style has been likened to that of Brahms and Beethoven, but an air of Slavic wistfulness and melancholy hangs about his musings. First listen to the delightful First Sonata in B minor (1910), a slender and graceful work capped by two dance movements, a lilting Danza followed by a more animated Ditirambo, an ode to Dionysius.

The Third Sonata in E minor (1938) is dubbed Sonata Epica for good reason. Its four movements play for 47 minutes, surpassing even Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata for breadth and scope. Medtner’s retiring nature prevents him from wearing heart-on-sleeve like his friend Rachmaninov, and the music ambles along with much purpose and meticulous craftsmanship without descending into heart-wrenching pathos. British violinist Chloe Hanslip and Ukrainian pianist Igor Tchetuev distinguish both works with beauty of tone and an understated virtuosity. Try it and fall in love.      

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