Thursday, 27 November 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, November 2014)

SCRIABIN Solo Piano Works
Capriccio 49586 (8CDs + DVD) / ****1/2

It is always interesting to track the development and progress of a composer from youth to maturity through his works. It is possible in the case of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) who wrote piano works all his life, starting as a Chopin devotee before becoming a self-proclaimed messianic figure whose music became increasingly mystical and mysterious, embracing the occult and taking on psychedelic dimensions. Latvia-born Swedish pianist Maria Lettberg performs his complete solo works with opus numbers in chronological order, and one is able to follow Scriabin’s trajectory on a number of fronts: via his 10 Sonatas, 84 Préludes, 24 Études, dances (Mazurkas and Waltzes), and various pieces enigmatically titled as Poémes.

It is a fascinating journey from wide-eyed innocence to ecstatic and even carnal self-indulgences. The listener is drawn into his heady sound world and can even detect when the metamorphoses take place, thanks to Lettberg’s consistently sensitive and intuitive performances. There is a bonus DVD entitled The Mysterium Project, where excerpts from Scriabin’s sonatas have a son et lumiere show as a backdrop. Scriabin was afflicted with synaesthesia, where the perception of sound is accompanied by coloured visions. His later music, which puts this mixed blessing into action, is utterly unique, once heard never forgotten.

BRAHMS / SIBELIUS Violin Concertos
The Philharmonia / Issay Dobrowen & Walter Susskind
EMI Classics 476830 2 / *****

The Paris-born violinist Ginette Neveu (1919-1949), a contemporary of Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern, would have become the world’s greatest violinist had she not perished in an air crash in the Atlantic at the young age of only 30. At 16, she had already won the Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition in Warsaw, pipping the likes of the mature David Oistrakh. Without sounding sexist, Neveu played like a man. On blind listening, one is astonished by her sinewy tone, a fiery temperament that neither minces the notes nor stints on sensitivity. In short, she was an all-round musician and artist, regardless of gender.

Interestingly, the album’s programme notes by Tully Potter record that both the Brahms and Sibelius concertos were championed and popularised by women violinists. These were Neveu’s calling cards too. Her view of the Brahms (recorded in 1946) has a forthrightness that is refreshing, an eloquence that takes into account both the music’s resolute and tender pages. Even more trenchant is her gritty take on the Sibelius (1945), which has a frightening intensity, one that grips the listener whole from start to finish and does not let off. The finale is taken at a slower pace than most modern recordings, which better reveals her steely control. Why do people swear by these post-War monaural documents? Listen to the re-mastered recordings, and be suitably awe-struck.

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