Thursday, 25 September 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2014)

The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
DMA Discs TK431 / ****1/2

It was the summer of 2008 when Singapore audiences witnessed not one but two performances of The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (1975), the hour-long theme and variations masterpiece for piano by American composer Frederic Rzewski (born 1938). The second of these was given in a studio at the Conservatory by Canadian pianist Corey Hamm, a remarkable achievement as he had performed with virtually nine fingers, having injured his right little finger. This 20th century equivalent of Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations takes no prisoners given its immense complexities and physical demands on the performer.

The subject is a Chilean workers’ revolutionary anthem, which gets treated to 36 variations in total (6 sets of 6, with every 6th variation an amalgamation of the 5 preceding it).The set runs the full gamut of 20th century styles and idioms including folk, jazz, minimalism and atonality, with the pianist also expected to vocalise and whistle at certain points. One of few pianists in the world to tour with this work, Hamm brings out its panoply of nuances with missionary zeal and vigour. Although the improvisatory section has been omitted, this 2012 recording compares well with those of the composer and its dedicatee Ursula Oppens. A must listen for anyone interested in 20th century piano literature.    

BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No.5
SCHUMANN Fantasy Op.17
YUNDI, Piano
Berlin Philharmonic / Daniel Harding
Deutsche Grammophon 481 0710 / ****

After that unmitigated disaster in the Tchaikosky First Piano Concerto with the Singapore Symphony in 2009 and several humdrum years with EMI Classics, Yundi (who has since dropped his surname Li) has returned to the fold of Deutsche Grammophon. This is his first concerto recording with the German “Yellow label” since the highly successful Prokofiev and Ravel coupling of 2008. Also partnered here by the Berlin Philharmonic, it sounds like the Chinese pianist has made a note-worthy comeback.

His performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto is conceived on a grand scale and the big-boned playing reveals neither frailties nor idiosyncrasies. The sense of occasion, captured in live performances in January and February this year, is gratefully lapped up and the playing radiates warmth and joy. Included as a generous coupling is Schumann’s Fantasy in C major (Op.17), originally conceived as an ode to Beethoven in the manner of his late Sonatas. While the playing is somewhat less exulted as in the concerto, this is still a solid and moving account that redeems Yundi as China’s “Comeback Kid”.

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