Thursday, 29 May 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, May 2014)

RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No.3
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No.2
Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 479 130 4 / *****

It’s official: Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto and Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto have become the most performed 20th century concertos by young pianists of today. Both accounted for two thirds of the six finalists’ choices at the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and now this latest disc by young Chinese keyboard superstar Yuja Wang. Conceived within three years of each other, both exude Russian pathos at its darkest and most brooding, but take divergent paths to stratospheric virtuoso heights. Rachmaninov’s is the last great Romantic concerto, while Prokofiev’s melding of steely dissonance and percussiveness heralded a new age.

These are terrific live recordings which made up one explosive concert programme in Caracas, Venezuela in February 2013. Wang’s approach is reminiscent of Vladimir Ashkenazy’s scintillating first recording of the Rachmaninov in 1963. Lithe and mercurial, both used the smaller and lighter of two 1st movement cadenzas, and Wang shaves a full minute off Ashkenazy. The blistering pacing she and the young players of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra led by the charismatic Gustavo Dudamel adopt in the Prokofiev, especially in the tempestuous finale, leaves all rivals in their wake. This one does not disappoint.

BRITTEN Complete Orchestral
& Instrumental Music
Decca 478 545 1 (13 CDs) / *****

Although Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was best regarded for his operas and vocal music, his orchestral and instrumental music hold a special place because of their accessibility and and inventiveness. Young listeners will always be indebted to his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and concert-goers to his concertos, Sinfonia da Requiem and Frank Bridge Variations which do get performed off and on. In this definitive Decca commemorative release, it is Britten himself who conducts the major works, supporting major artists like Sviatoslav Richter (in the Piano Concerto), Mstislav Rostropovich (Cello Symphony), Mark Lubotsky (Violin Concerto) and Julius Katchen (Diversions for piano & orchestra) in definitive readings.

Much of his earlier instrumental music and student works for almost every instrumental combination possible (from humble recorders to pipe organ and string quartet) are virtually unknown. Some were written with children in mind and every note has been brought together in this multi-label (13 at last count) enterprise. These reveal an eclectic and innovative voice, sometimes naïve, playful but always witty, which eventually coalesce into his highly individual, often dissonant yet distinctive style. Many of the performances here are first recordings. There are surprises aplenty and repeated listening will be rewarded manifold.

This set retails at $84 
(excluding postage and packaging) 

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