Thursday, 13 November 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, November 2014)

BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata Op.110
SCHUBERT Piano Sonata D.960
BIS 1999 / *****

Who is the world’s oldest living active concert pianist today? That has to be Menahem Pressler, 91 years young, better known as the founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio. Born in Eastern Germany in 1923, he is more active these days as a soloist, pedagogue and competition juror. This recital programme recorded in 2012 shows no diminution of his abilities, instead a demonstration of how music makes the soul eternally young. If Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat major Op.110 sounds plain-speaking, but that is because he lets the music speak for itself. The 2nd movement’s Allegro molto is on the slow side, but the finale’s fugue is voiced with total clarity, bringing the late work to a glorious fruition.

Even better is Schubert’s final Sonata in B flat major D.960, where its longeurs find a kindred spirit. The expansive opening movement never sounds draggy even with the exposition repeat, and he leaves the best for the Andante sostenuto slow movement. Here is Schubert at his most magnificently haunting, and Pressler’s pacing makes time stand still, before ascending into happier climes of the last two movements. He also offers a sublime encore with Chopin’s posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne in its alternative version. Such hallowed pianism is all too rare these days. 

Soloists with L’Arpeggiata
Christina Pluhar, Director
Erato 463620 3 (CD + DVD) / *****

Crossover albums these days tend to be mind-numbingly dull, but this one is an exception because of the quality of the music and the performers. The English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695) with his pretty sacred and secular music might seem an unusual choice, but it is this simplicity and purity that is fertile soil for improvisation.

The form he favoured in many of his arias was the ground, a repetitive bass rhythm over which melodies and harmonies are layered, such as When I Am Laid In Earth from Dido and Aeneas, Music For A While from Oedipus and O Let Me Weep from The Fairy Queen. The arrangements, mostly by Christina Pluhar, retain the original words and harmonies but jazzes up the melodic line and instrumentations, with period instruments augmented and “updated” by jazz clarinettist Gianluca Trovesi, acoustic and electric guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel and pianist Francesco Turrisi.

The singers is an A-list of baroque voices with countertenors Philippe Jaroussky and Dominique Visse, soprano Raquel Andueza and the strikingly feminine alto voice of Vincenzo Capezzuto. That the opening track ‘Twas Within A Furlong from The Mock Marriage sounds like country and western gives a clue of the liberties taken. To close, Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is given the baroque treatment with similarly beautiful results, proving that Purcell was way ahead of his time and a unique voice for the ages.   

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