Thursday, 22 January 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, January 2015)

Complete RCA and Columbia Album Collection
Sony Classical 88843014722 (10 CDs) / *****

The name of Cuban pianist Jorge Bolet (1914-1990) is synonymous with pianism of lush Romanticism from a bygone age, particularly the music of Franz Liszt. This box-set of RCA Victor and Columbia Masterworks recordings dating from 1958 to 1982 capture him at the height of his technical and interpretive prowess, which his later Decca recordings (just before he was diagnosed with AIDS) sadly miss out on. There are two patrician sets of Liszt Transcendental Etudes, the 1970 Barcelona recording (originally released on Ensayo) being the complete do. His utter clarity, tonal colour and magisterial pacing, shunning ostentatious outward theatrics, stand out in these and a clutch of Liszt and Rachmaninov transcriptions.

The jewel in the crown is his 1972 Carnegie Hall Recital, which cemented his place in the pantheon of greats. Seldom has the Bach-Busoni Chaconne and Chopin 24 Preludes sizzled with such fervent immediacy, topped off with the Wagner-Liszt Tannhauser Overture delivered with devastating panache, and rarely played encores (Schulz-Evler, Tausig, Moszkowski and Rubinstein) which teased and tantalised. The chamber offerings of Franck’s Piano Quintet and Chausson’s Concert (with the Juilliard Quartet and Itzhak Perlman in the latter) scarcely made up for the regrettable gap when RCA dropped him for someone younger and seemingly more marketable. The folly of those “lost years” will never be recovered, but one will be grateful for the treasures within this budget-priced collection.   

SCHUMANN Complete Symphonies
Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique
Archiv 479 2515 (5 CDs) / *****

Anyone who doubts Robert Schumann’s gifts as an orchestrator in his symphonies should listen to these performances on period instruments. Too often one has been accustomed to big-scaled modern orchestra interpretations which make the music sound stodgy and overcooked. Not so when John Eliot Gardiner and his British (despite its pretentious French name) band enliven the very same notes with an irrepressible spirit and verve. Listen first to the familiar First Symphony (nicknamed “Spring”), which define the meaning of vitality itself. The more expansive Second and Third Symphonies (the latter known as the “Rhenish”) are given no less trenchant readings. In both, the bombast is ditched, once and for all.

It is not just the faster tempos adopted or the lighter orchestral forces utilised, but the conception that Schumann meant for those dynamics and economies of scale, that is convincing. Both versions of the Fourth Symphony (1841, later revised in 1851) are included, and one is left to conclude that his later thoughts were more persuasive. Earlier and lesser attempts at the symphony form - a Symphony in G minor (“Zwickauer”, 1832-33) and the Overture, Scherzo and Finale – complete the picture. The Concert Piece for Four Horns, Requiem for Mignon, and oratorio Das Paradies Und Die Peri (based on Thomas Moore’s oriental fairy tale Lalla Rookh) and choral music with the Monteverdi Choir make a generous bonus to an already indispensible set.  

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