Thursday, 2 October 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, October 2014)

The Music of Howard Blake
Decca 478 6300 / ****1/2

For all the prolific output of British composer Howard Blake (born 1938), over 650 works to date, he will forever be remembered for Walking In The Air, that mega-hit song in the children’s animated Christmas film The Snowman. Its simplicity and beauty permeates most of this album of Blake’s piano music which spans from 1955 to 2013, performed no less by his close friend Vladimir Ashkenazy. The piano version of Walking, which falls easily within the hands of young pianists, is now part of Lifecycle. This suite of 24 short pieces or preludes also includes Eight Character Pieces (1975), Music Box from the movie The Changeling (1979) and the early Russian-flavoured Romanza (1963), written for the Ashkenazys after their defection to the West. 

Blake’s Sonata (1971) and Dances (1976) for two pianos (with Ashkenazy’s eldest son Vovka on second piano) deserve to be better known, the latter being a set of variations on a simple theme in a panoply of dance styles, including waltz, ragtime, boogie-woogie and cha-cha. The major single-movement work in this set is Speech After Long Silence (2011), written as a set-piece for the Hong Kong International Piano Competition. This is an alternatingly brooding and ecstatic essay in the manner of Rachmaninov, which perfectly suits the temperament of Russian virtuoso. An enjoyable listen, from start to end.

Sony Music 88843003502 / ***1/2

Make no mistake about it, Volume 1 of RCA Red Seal’s Living Stereo retrospective collector’s edition is far superior to this, its sequel. Its contents replicate the original LPs such that each disc presents very poor playing time on its own. Thus the music on 60 discs could have easily been fit onto 50, with room for more. For example, Arthur Rubinstein’s recordings of the five Beethoven piano concertos with the Symphony of the Air conducted by Josef Krips are spread over 5 discs, while the classic 1958 Rossini Barber of Seville with Robert Merrill and Roberta Peters from the Metropolitan Opera takes place in 4.

This extravagance is however mitigated by the quality of performances by America’s top artists and orchestras led by the 20th century’s great names, including Fritz Reiner, Pierre Monteux, Erich Leinsdorf, Charles Munch and Arthur Fiedler amongst others. One should not miss the disc of Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Arthur Rubinstein coupled with a string of his favourite encores. Any recording involving the Hungarian Fritz Reiner, dictator of the Chicago Symphony, be it a hard-driven Beethoven Ninth Symphony, breathtaking Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky, or even Hovhaness’s Mysterious Mountain, would be worth listening to. The object of this exercise is nostalgia, and whatever the caveats may be, these are easily forgiven. Do however make Volume 1 (88697720602) your first priority.    

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