Thursday, 11 September 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2014)

MSR Classics 1465 & 1466 / ****1/2

Any complete survey of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas would rightly be described as an odyssey. This was a compositional journey of some 30 years, beginning with Bonn’s angst-ridden smasher of keyboards of the early 1790s and culminating in the 1820s stone-deaf sage of Vienna with his timeless, visionary musings. British pianist James Brawn’s first two discs includes two early sonatas and the popular ones bestowed with nicknames. Listen first to Volume 2 which opens with the Pathetique (Op.13) and Moonlight Sonatas (Op.27 No.2). The titles were given by publishers to enhance sales but reflect Beethoven’s expressive abilities, from pathos to dreaminess and outright tempestuousness. Between these and the passionate Waldstein Sonata (Op.53) are the two “easy” sonatas of Op.49, which fall comfortably within children’s hands.

Volume 1 contains the two sonatas in the moody key of F minor. Op.2 No.1 was Beethoven’s first published sonata, dedicated to Haydn but already showing signs of surpassing the old master’s gifts. Op.57 is none other than the Appassionata Sonata, epitome of Beethoven’s stormy Middle Period. s Beethoven'han the Appassionata Sonata, thester'1 was Beethoven'stein Sonata (Op.53)nist Both sonatas sandwich the congenial Sonata in C major (Op.2 No.3), one of his sunnier and more humorous creations. These are very satisfying performances with brain and brawn, bringing to mind many qualities of the great Beethoven interpreters: Kempff, Arrau and Brendel. Further instalments in this cycle are keenly awaited.

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Champs Hill 064 / ****1/2

In 2009, the Tartarstan-born pianist Sofya Gulyak made history when she became the first woman to win 1st Prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition. Unsurprisingly, her calling card début disc is a programme of 20th century Russian piano works which play to her strengths. She is an uncompromisingly direct pianist with a burly physical stature that can more than withstand the repertoire’s heavyweight blockbusters. This is most evident in Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata where the force of a juggernaut, seemingly unlimited endurance and sense of irony are a premium. 

Equally daunting is Nikolai Medtner’s single-movement Sonata Tragica which is as dense and compact as it is lyrical, a showcase of Slavic brooding and sublimation. A different light is shed on Medtner’s lesser-known Skazki (Folk Tales) Op.26, four short and varied miniatures that reveal a plethora of colours. This sense of fantasy is consummated in Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations, where her formidable technique is every match for the work’s kaleidoscope of nuances. This is a very well-conceived recital, expertly delivered, one that demands serious attention.

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