Thursday, 14 August 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2014)

HJ LIM, Piano
Warner Classics 914509 2 / ****1/2

Although Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) were born within three years of each other, their music is not readily associated and infrequently coupled on disc. This recital by young Korean pianist and Youtube sensation HJ Lim (the stage name of Lim Hyun-Jung) highlights the similarities between the fastidious Frenchman and the wild, volatile Russian, while maintaining their own distinctiveness. There is much freedom and liberties taken in Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales while the semblance of classical form in the Sonatine is gate-crashed by its tempestuous finale.

In between these are Scriabin’s Fourth and Fifth Sonatas, transitional works which rapidly escalate from a languid stillness to fiery incandescence. These contrasts are mirrored in the Two Poems Op.32, which sound like miniature portraits of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There are two grand waltzes to close. Scriabin’s Waltz in A flat major relives Chopinesque elegance with an ecstatic ending, but sounds polite beside the cataclysmic sweep and fatal whirling of Ravel’s La Valse, the waltz to end all waltzes. Lim laps all this up with great relish, and the performances take flight to stratospheric reaches.  

KHRENNIKOV Symphonies & Concertos
Melodiya 10 02086 (3 CDs) / ****

Has there been a composer more vilified and despised than Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007)? From the 1940s to the fall of the Soviet Union, he was the all-powerful First Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers. In effect Stalin’s commissar on musical matters, he subjected composers like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian to charges of formalism and being counter-revolutionary, and attempted to suppress the progress of an entire generation of new composers. His own music typically expresses that ethos of Socialist Realism and glorification of the State. He was however not a talentless hack as many made him out to be.

Khrennikov’s three symphonies, composed between 1935 and 1974 and modelled on the music of prolific symphonist Nikolai Myaskovsky (who wrote some 27 symphonies), are well-crafted but reveal little development of form and style over the decades. The pairs of violin concertos and cello concertos are very lyrical and may be enjoyed like Dmitri Kabalevsky’s aurally undemanding offerings for the same medium. The four piano concertos are virtuosic and glittering while missing out on Prokofiev or Shostakovich’s acid wit.

In short, Khrennikov was a good craftsman and middling talent who would have excelled as a Hollywood film composer had he been American. These recordings on the State-controlled music label Melodiya, by big names like conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov, violinist Vadim Repin and Khrennikov himself on piano, give an indication to the level of importance he commanded in the old hierarchy. With Khrennikov’s demise, these are unlikely to be bettered, or repeated for that matter.  

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