Thursday, 10 July 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, July 2014)

DUBOIS Piano Concertos
BBC Scottish Symphony / Andrew Manze
Hyperion 67931 / ****1/2

History and posterity might judge French composer Theodore Dubois (1837-1924) as a staid academic and musical arch-conservative. Those qualities also apply to his contemporary, the well-loved Camille Saint-SaĆ«ns who was no more a revolutionary in his music. This disc of three Dubois piano concertos should align the two establishment figures in better perspective and possibly tip in favour of the underdog. His single-movement Concerto-Capriccioso in C minor (1876) opens with an extended solo cadenza, and shifts from seriousness to keyboard glitter, not unlike the 1st movement of Saint-Saens’s popular Second Piano Concerto (1868).    

The Second Piano Concerto in F minor (1897) is the longest work at 28 minutes but is almost perfectly judged as not to outlive its welcome. Its four-movement form including a quirky staccato-laden Scherzo, which lasts all of two minutes, seems almost identical in proportion to Prokofiev’s modernistic Second Piano Concerto, a world away in terms of musical idiom. Finally the Suite for Piano & Strings (1917), also in four movements, is a total charmer from his old age. The fact that 41 years separate the three works makes little difference to Dubois, who rarely varied his style or palette to move with the times. These performances by French virtuoso Cedric Tiberghien, sympathetically accompanied by excellent Scottish forces, sparkle like champagne, should win new friends for the much-maligned Dubois.   

BRAHMS Violin Sonatas
Decca 478 6442 / *****

It is refreshing to see and hear two of the world’s most celebrated soloists go into anti-virtuoso mode in the give-and-take world of chamber music-making. The three violin sonatas (Opus 78, 100 and 108) of Johannes Brahms could hardly be described as “easy”, but the depth of musicianship demanded goes beyond mere technical command and instrumental virtuosity. Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos is an established chamber music veteran, having recently completed a superb Beethoven sonata cycle (also on Decca), while Yuja Wang sheds her solo diva image to be a close to ideal partner.

Even in the faster outer movements of the sonatas, there is no hint of flash or fireworks, instead a subdued and sublime air dominates. Kavakos’s tone is sweet, Wang’s piano is deliberately understated and the balance they achieve together is perfect. The slow movements are as lovely as they are breathtaking in conception. As a bonus, the duo includes the tempestuous but early Scherzo in C minor (from the FAE Sonata crafted by three composers for the violinist Joseph Joachim), which opens the disc, and as an encore a transcription of Brahms’s Cradle Song, a somnolent but effective way to sign off. Warmly recommended. 

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