Thursday, 10 April 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, April 2014)

PROKOFIEV The War Sonatas
Orchid Classics 100023 / *****

The three greatest piano sonatas of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) were composed during the years of the Second World War, when the Soviet Union waged a life-and-death struggle against Nazi Germany at a cost of over 20 million lives. The Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Sonatas or “War Sonatas” (Op.82 to 84) were written at the same time, and share the common qualities of being brutally dissonant and percussive but tempered with a paradoxical lyricism and sentimentality. These diametrically opposites become clear when one considers that even temporary relief from the ever-looming spectre of death becomes a valued luxury.

Mortality and beauty sit uneasily in these masterpieces. The Sixth Sonata has a pulverising belligerence but its third movement is a slow waltz. The compact Seventh Sonata juxtaposes tolling bells with precipitous machine-gun fire, the toccata-like finale being its most famous three minutes. The Eighth Sonata is the longest and most subtle, with languorous bittersweet emotions being swept away by ruthless and unyielding hard reality. Ironically, all three sonatas were written in the major keys. Russia-born Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg, 1st prize-winner of the 2013 Queen Elizabeth International Piano Competition, possessing a steel-clad technique allied with razor-keen intellect (he also penned the very perceptive sleeve notes), is the ideal exponent of this trilogy of doom.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.1
with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra 
conducted by Neeme Järvi
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday, 12 April 2014 at 7.30 pm
Tickets available at SISTIC

DOHNANYI Piano Quintets
Schubert Ensemble of London
Helios 55412 / ****1/2

Ernö Dohnanyi (1877-1960) was the great Hungarian Romantic at an age when his contemporaries Bartok and Kodaly were experimenting with dissonance and use of folk music in works of a more contemporary vein. His idioms lay in the Austro-Germanic past, best illustrated in his two piano quintets.

The better-known First Quintet in C minor (1895), a teenage effort, could have come from the quill of Brahms himself, who delighted in infusing his music with a Magyar flavour and vibe. The slow movement’s languorous cello melody, reminiscent of Brahms’s Third Piano Quartet, provides the work’s most memorable minutes.
The Second Quintet in E flat minor (1914) is just as conservative and accessible, but with darker and more introspective shades. British pianist William Howard and his colleagues of the Schubert Ensemble give lively and beautifully detailed performances. A substantial filler is the five-movement Serenade for string trio, which makes for engaging listening. All this represents extremely good value at a budget price.

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