Thursday 26 February 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, February 2015)

EMI Classics 94044 2 (6CDs) / *****     

In the early 1980s, the great Argentina-born pianist Martha Argerich stopped giving solo recitals and turned her back on solo recordings. This fateful decision and apparent setback was thankfully channelled into increased activity in chamber music and piano duo repertoire with multiple fruitful collaborations. 

This collection does not replicate her recordings on Deutsche Grammophon but complements it with live recordings from the Lugano Festival in a project named after her. The first disc however contains solo performances, an all-Chopin recital (Sonata No.3 and shorter works) recorded immediately after her triumph at the 1965 Chopin International Piano Competition and a Schumann's Scenes From Childhood of a more recent countenance.

Highlights of the 2-piano repertoire in this box-set include Liszt's Concerto Pathetique and Don Juan Fantasy, Rachmaninov's two Suites, Brahms Sonata in F minor and Haydn Variations, Prokofiev's Classical Symphony (transcribed by Rikuya Terashima), and two performances of Lutoslawski's Paganini Variations. 

More intriguing is the unusual coupling of Messiaen's austere but scintillating Visions De L'Amen with Gustavino's Argentinian Romances and three Piazzolla tangos, as if contrasting spirituality with comic relief.  Argerich's partners read like a Who's Who of great pianism, including Nelson Freire, Stephen Kovacevich, Yefim Bronfman, Piotr Anderszewski, Alexandre Rabinovitch and others. This is indispensable listening for pianophiles.  

Canary Classics CC12 (2 Cds) / *****

If one were to survey the 20th century violin concertos most often programmed by the world's symphony orchestras, chances are many of these date from the 1930s. This era of eclecticism, experimentation and upheaval may explain the sheer diversity and heterogeneity, explored by American violinist Gil Shaham in this collection of live recordings.

No violin concerto is as melodious as Samuel Barber's (1939), unusual as it comprises two slow movements capped by a brief and frenetic finale, so difficult that it flummoxed its original dedicatee. By contrast, Alban Berg's (1935) written in memory of Manon Gropius (daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler), is atonal but orchestrated so lushly that it sounds late Romantic.  Karl Amadeus Hartmann's Concerto Funebre (1939) for strings quotes socialist and antifascist themes, a surprise that he even survived the Nazis.

The second disc couples Igor Stravinsky's neoclassical Violin Concerto (1931), a fond homage to J.S.Bach, with Benjamin Britten's early Violin Concerto (1939), which successfully combines gritty dissonance with long-breathed lyricism. Shaham performs all these with a natural flair and innate authority that is hard to ignore. His partners include the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, BBC Symphony, Dresden Staatskapelle and Sejong Soloists. Volume Two of this important retrospective is keenly awaited.

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