Thursday, 24 July 2014

CD REVIEWS (The Straits Times, July 2014)

MAHLER Symphonies
The Philharmonia / New Philharmonia
EMI Classics 248398 2 (6 CDs) / *****

It was Gustav Mahler himself who wrote in 1907 a personal recommendation for the young Polish-Jewish pianist and conductor Otto Klemperer (1885-1973), who had presented his two-piano transcription of Mahler’s Second Symphony to the great Austrian composer himself. With the master’s imprimatur, Klemperer was to embark on an illustrious and often turbulent career that lasted almost 75 years. Regrettably he did not conduct or record all of the Mahler symphonies. This EMI Classics retrospective box-set captures just five symphonies in their full glory.

Klemperer’s takes on the Second Symphony (“Resurrection”) and The Song Of The Earth (with mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and the late tenor Fritz Wunderlich), recorded between 1961 and 1966, are without doubt among the greatest recordings in the catalogue. The octogenarian’s recordings of the Ninth and Seventh Symphonies are also the slowest, running at 87 and a staggering 100 minutes respectively. How he sustains these leisurely to glacial tempos mostly without sounding stodgy (the exception being the finale of the Seventh) is a testament to his judgement, and how the London-based orchestra responds to his spell-binding direction. Throw in the genial Fourth Symphony (with the matchless soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf) and several orchestrated Lieder (with Christa Ludwig), this is a set to truly treasure.   

SCHUBERT Complete Works
For Violin & Piano
Hyperion 67911/2 (2 CDs) / *****

From the master of German lieder Franz Schubert (1797-1828) comes this handy collection of music for violin and piano, blest with the same flowing lyricism that distinguished his songs. The violin sonatas are slender pieces modelled after Mozart. The first three (D.384, 385 and 408) were composed in 1816 and published as Sonatinas for piano and violin (note the piano’s designation of prominence), most probably aimed at the amateur music-making market. These are delightful pieces, full of melodic charm and congenial humour. Even when exhibiting some degree of pathos, these do not reach the level of angst in Beethoven’s sonatas.

In the single movement Rondo in B minor (D.895) and Fantasy in C major (D.934), there is greater leeway for virtuosic display. The latter is Schubert’s longest work for this medium, and also the best known. The 26-minute piece includes as its centrepiece a lovely set of variations on his lied Sei Mir Gegrusst! (I Greet You!). For good measure, Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova and French pianist Cedric Tiberghien also perform that song to close the set. Their interpretations are unmannered and highly musical, befitting the works’ humbler origins, and are a pleasurable listen form start to finish.

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