Thursday, 9 October 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, October 2014)

EMI Classics 9344762 / ****1/2

When a musical child prodigy has to decide on whether to become a concert pianist or composer, what does one do? In the case of Illinois-born Chinese pianist Conrad Tao (born 1994), who studies in the Juilliard School, the answer is to pursue both. Voyages, his début commercial album juxtaposes his original compositions with well-established classics.  Vestiges (2011-12), a suite of four short and tonally alluring pieces, begin where impressionists Debussy and Ravel left off. Their pages of limpid and shimmering textures, abetted by actual melody interest (all too rare a commodity among contemporary composers), are a pleasure to listen to.

The two longest movements, Upon Being and Upon Viewing Two Porcelain Figures, contrast brooding contemplation with joyous rapture. These pieces sit well between a selection of Rachmaninov Préludes and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, works of similar inspiration, which receive ravishing readings. Tao’s Iridescence (2012) mixes the piano with programmed tones from his iPad, a nod to 21st century technology and popular culture. This and Meredith Monk’s minimalistic Railroad (Travel Song) bookend an ingeniously programmed recital disc from a very fine pianist and unusually keen intellect.

STANFORD Piano Concerto No.2
Variations on Down Among The Dead Men
RTE National Symphony / Kenneth Montgomery
Claves 50-1101 / ****1/2

When encountering a Second Piano Concerto in C minor and a set of variations for piano and orchestra, one would be excused for thinking the composer to be Rachmaninov. Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) was an Irishman who became founding Professor of Composition at London’s Royal College of Music and Cambridge, and one of the leading British composers before the rise to fame of Edward Elgar. Composed in 1911, his Piano Concerto No.2 echoes Rachmaninov’s famous number at the outset with sweeping piano arpeggios accompanying a broad melody by the orchestra. Its second subject resembles the big melody in Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu but the development owes more to the influence of Brahms.

All this suggests a derivative work, but it is nevertheless an extremely well-crafted and gratifying for the listener who enjoys Saint-Saëns, Dvorak and Tchaikovky. The Variations on Down Among The Dead Men is based on an English drinking song, with the “dead men” being a reference to empty bottles rather than corpses. Its form is reminiscent of Brahms’s Haydn Variations and Franck’s Symphonic Variations, but the scintillating piano writing and integration with the orchestra looks forward to Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody and Dohnanyi’s Nursery Tune Variations. Irishman Finghin Collins and Ireland’s national orchestra give persuasive performances that will win the works many new friends.

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