Thursday, 30 October 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, October 2014)

SCHARWENKA Piano Concertos
Estonian National Symphony / Neeme Järvi
Chandos 10814 (2 CDs) / ****1/2

How the fortunes of Franz Xaver Scharwenka (1850-1924) have fallen over the decades since his death, for once he was feted as a piano virtuoso and founder of musical conservatories. Even his Polish Dance in E flat minor (Op.3 No.1), once popular among amateurs, is rarely heard these days. This double CD album (priced as one disc) hopes to revive the memory of the Polish composer whose four piano concertos combined the virtuoso flourishes of Liszt and nationalistic fervour of Chopin, and like Rachmaninov, all cast in minor keys.

It does not matter which CD one begins with, as the foursome spans between 1876 and 1908 and displays little or no tendency to evolve with the times. Perhaps the best known, however little, is No.1 in B flat minor, which was famously recorded by Earl Wild in 1969. It has a scintillating Scherzo and is cyclical in form, as the opening theme also closes the concerto. All four are extremely accessible and make enjoyable listening. Russian pianist Alexander Markovich’s no holds barred approach and thunderous pianism is not always subtle but the full-blooded Romanticism of these scores shine through. Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi is a committed proselytiser of rarely-heard music, and the Estonian National Orchestra whole-heartedly supports this well-conceived venture.

Berlin Philharmonic
Deutsche Grammophon 479 2231 (8 CDs) / *****

Want to sample the greatness of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/? Look no further than this mini box-set that provides a cross-section of its discography from the late 1940s to 2005 under the batons of seven great conductors. There is only one duplication with the 50 CD Centenary Edition, that of current chief conductor Simon Rattle leading Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1 with soloist Krystian Zimerman. More representative of the orchestra’s legacy of discipline and pristine sound may be found in recordings by Herbert von Karajan (Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony), Claudio Abbado (Mahler’s Ninth Symphony) and Carlo Maria Giulini (Beethoven’s Choral Symphony), the obvious plums of this set.

Further Austro-German music come from Wilhelm Furtwängler (overtures and orchestral highlights from Wagner operas) in 1949 and 1951 mono recordings, Karl Böhm (Schubert’s Unfinished and Great Symphonies) and a very satisfying outing with Rafael Kubelik (Schumann’s Second and Fourth Symphonies). Fans of Anne-Sophie Mutter will delight in her very precocious teenaged account of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Karajan. The original sleeve-art has been replicated but no write-up or history of the orchestra has been included. Priced at about $4 a disc, this set is still an excellent and hugely enjoyable bargain.  

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