Thursday, 22 May 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, May 2014)

Complete RCA Album Collection
Sony Classical 88725484402
(11 CDs & DVD) / ****1/2

Byron Janis (born 1928) was another member of the OYAP (Outstanding Young American Pianist) generation whose career was impeded by physical affliction. For 12 years during the 1970s to 80s, he endured the pain and debility of psoriatic arthritis before retiring from the concert stage. Although his most famous recordings were for the Mercury Living Presence label, these RCA recordings from 1947 to 1959 reveal a rising artist with an individual personality and incendiary technique.

Listen first to the disc that begins with Schulz-Evler’s transcription of the Johann Strauss Blue Danube Waltz and closes with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.6 for a taste of his prowess in prestidigitation. Having been a student of Vladimir Horowitz, Josef and Rosina Lhevinne, he excelled in Chopin and Rachmaninov. The latter’s First and Third Concertos, in Janis’s hands, are distinguished by their warmth, whole-hearted virtuosity and love for the lyrical line. Also worthy are startling accounts of Liszt’s Totentanz and Richard Strauss’ Burleske.

As the CDs are reproduced in miniature from the original LPs, playing times are short, most running under 40 minutes. The Byron Janis Story, an hour-long 2010 documentary by Peter Rosen detailing his life’s trials and tribulations, however makes for a heartrending story.    

JOHN ADAMS Harmonielehre
Doctor Atomic Symphony
Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Peter Oundjian
Chandos 5129 / ****1/2

Of the American composers loosely grouped as minimalists, it was John Adams (born 1947) who has displayed the greatest diversity in his output, and is the most universally performed. This new disc showcases two symphonies for large orchestra. The more recent is Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007), adapted from his 2005 opera about nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer and the explosion of the first atomic bomb.

All the Adams trademarks are there, kinetic and pulsatile rhythms, well-placed dissonances and the lyrical line that rises above the throng. Although opening with the insistent beat like the beginning of Brahms’s First Symphony, the music luxuriates in a trumpet solo of the final section, which is an impassioned cry on the impending death of innocents.     

The longer and equally tonal Harmonielehre (1985) is already well-established, its title an ironic tribute to Arnold Schoenberg’s treatise on the end of harmony. Listen to the second movement, The Amfortas Wound, which pays tribute Wagner and the massive dissonant chord at the climax of the Adagio of Mahler’s 10th Symphony. Between these is the popular Short Ride in a Fast Machine, the 4-minute-long orchestral toccata, which further confirms the high octane and incisive playing of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra led by its Canadian music director Peter Oundjian. Recommended listening.

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