Thursday, 4 December 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, December 2014)

ELGAR / WALTON Cello Concertos
London Philharmonic / Zhang Yi
Decca 8896661 / *****

Any recording by the Chinese-Australian cellist Qin Li-Wei, presently based in Singapore, is a cause for celebration. This is Qin’s second recording of Edward Elgar’s autumnal Cello Concerto in E minor (1918), written as an elegiac response to the catastrophic loss of life and innocence in the First World War. The inner struggle that comes with the inevitable end of empire is also predicted in its pages; the work is an half-hour long epic sigh. Qin, who revels in its long-breathed lines, shaves off almost 2 minutes from his earlier recording with the Adelaide Symphony (issued on Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s budget series label), yet retains the unshakeable sense of nobility of the music.

Its coupling is no less apt, William Walton’s Cello Concerto (1956), which is also filled with a bittersweet regret in its slow-fast-slow three-movement form. Qin plays the later 1975 version of its ending (written for Gregor Piatigorsky who died before he could play it) which closes with a whimper. In both concertos, he brings out a gorgeous tone on a 1780 Joseph Guadagnini loaned by Singaporeans Dr & Mrs Wilson Goh. The Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes makes a generous bonus to this glorious album of English music.

PAGANINI Violin Concertos Nos.1 & 2
NDR Radio Philharmonie Hannover
Eiji Oue
Brilliant Classics 94803 / ****1/2

The Italian violinist-composer Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840) has been hailed as the world’s first great virtuoso and pop star. Despite his innumerable innovations in violin technique, he was harmonically speaking, a musical conservative. His works highlighted an outsized armamentarium of tricks and stunts, but were no more advanced than the bel canto composers who were all the rage at the time. They relied on a seamless legato melodic line, embellished with outlandish leaps and frilly trills of the singers, which astonished the first audiences. Paganini was a string wizard among vocal sorceresses, and his charismatic demeanour was imitated by the likes of Liszt, Thalberg and other virtuosos.

All these excesses will be found in Paganini’s first two violin concertos, including the treacherous double-stops in harmonics to be found in the finale of Violin Concerto No.1. The finale of Violin Concerto No.2 is none other than the famous La Campanella, made to sound like light work by Hungarian violinist Kristof Barati. He supplies the cadenza for No.2, which is every bit a match for the stunning Sauret cadenza of No.1. For his sheer fearlessness, this recording surpasses the famous Salvatore Accardo version (on Deutsche Grammophon) of the 1980s. The shameless showboating in this music is actually fun, and no excuses should be made for wallowing in it. 

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