Thursday, 17 July 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, July 2014)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
Naxos 8.573188 / *****

Only one of Dmitri Shostakovich’s purely orchestral symphonies has not been performed in Singapore: the Fourth Symphony No.4 in C minor, arguably his greatest, and for good reason too. It plays for over an hour, calls for a massive orchestra with strings, winds, brass and percussion multiplied manifold, and is the epitome of shrillness and stridency. Completed in 1936, the symphony was immediately withdrawn following the scandal of his opera Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk, which was roundly criticised by Stalin himself. The content of the 3-movement symphony may be called to question for its extreme dissonance, raucous violence and in-your-face ironies. Its litany of mocking marches and grotesque dances are a barely-concealed criticism of contemporary Soviet society.

This performance in a highly successful recorded symphony cycle led by young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko does not stint on the music’s bleakness and bathos. The woodwinds, brass and percussion are particularly spectacular in spewing out the bile and vitriol that permeates the work from beginning to end. And when a seemingly triumphant C major apotheosis threatens to restore a semblance of sanity and faith, the symphony peters off to an enervating and whimpering close. This is perhaps music’s most eloquent portrayal of futility and despair, in a most vivid reading with no quarter given.    

Ondine 1230-2D (2 CDs) / ***1/2

This new recording by maverick American pianist Tzimon Barto brings together the great piano works inspired by Italian virtuoso violinist-composer Niccolo Paganini’s famous Caprice No.24 in A minor for unaccompanied violin. Itself a set of variations, the hair-raising caprice has sparked the imagination of composers over the year, who have added their own variations into the mix. Barto opens with Franz Liszt’s 6 Grand Etudes After Paganini, with Etude No.6 being a free transcription of the afore-mentioned caprice. Etude No.3 is, of course, the ubiquitous La Campanella. Barto’s seemingly effortless technique is beyond reproach but he takes plenty of liberties in tempos and dynamics. In Brahms’s fearsome set of Paganini Variations Op.35, that includes re-writing a variation or two.

For 20th century Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations for two pianos, he plays both parts which are overdubbed to spectacular effect. The major disappointment is in Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody, where Barto is partnered by the Schleswig Holstein Festival Orchestra conducted by his mentor Christoph Eschenbach. Here he cannot resist the temptation of pulling and stretching tempos out of shape. The famous 18th Variation, emotional climax of the work, sounds wilful and almost interminable in these hands. The double-CD set is priced at the cost of a single disc. This is manna for the curious and seekers of the unusual (and perverse).

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