Thursday, 3 April 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, April 2014)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Peter Oundjian, Conductor
Chandos 5128 / *****

It is a sign of the times that a superlative recording of the three most popular 20th century American piano concertos comes not from an American pianist in the mould of Earl Wild, Van Cliburn or John Browning, but a young Chinese lady. Shanghai native Xiayin Wang, who schooled at the Manhattan School of Music, has the multifarious idioms and influences of these virtuoso concertos down pat.

Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto (1962), originally written for Browning, combines robust dissonance with a lingering post-Romantic lyricism. Wild was a champion of the next two concertos. Aaron Copland’s Piano Concerto (1926) mirrors his more familiar Clarinet Concerto with two contrasting movements, which move from an atmospheric stillness to starkly more angular and jazzy rhythms. Gershwin’s very popular Concerto In F (1925), which develops from his Rhapsody In Blue, is the ultimate marriage of classical form, jazz and big band sounds.

Wang does not just get the notes, but breathes the Americanisms to the manner born, while being excellently supported by the Scottish orchestra. Here is a winner from beginning to end.

Decca 478 5093 (50 CDs) / *****

In 2013, Decca Records issued this box-set to commemorate Russian-born pianist-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy’s fruitful 50-year relationship with the British label. His first recording, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Anatole Fistoulari in 1963, took place soon after his defection to the West after sharing 1st prize at the 1962 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. Lithe and mercurial, it is regarded by many as the finest of his four recordings of the work.

This set celebrates his finest moments as a solo, chamber and collaborative pianist. Pick of the crop include his views on Scriabin and Prokofiev sonatas and concertos from his earlier years, and the more recent Shostakovich Preludes & Fugues. His many collaborators included pianist-conductor André Previn, violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Lynn Harrell, the late soprano Elisabeth Soderstrom, all heard here in fine performances. Although his efforts as conductor are less stellar, there are still marvellous readings of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Sibelius and Beethoven symphonies. No less than seven discs are devoted to Rachmaninov, his surest and truest love. There is much to enjoy here.

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