Thursday, 26 March 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, March 2015)

BARTOK Violin Concertos Nos.1&2
Swedish Radio Symphony / Daniel Harding
Harmonia Mundi 902146 / ****1/2

There was a time when the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) was thought to have composed just one violin concerto.  That was until 1958 when an earlier concerto - composed in 1907, hitherto unperformed and unpublished - received its premiere. The two-movement Violin Concerto No.1 was conceived in an unrequited love affair, and it a more private and introverted work than the longer and better known Violin Concerto No.2 of 1938. Its pensive and ruminating first movement is based on a 4-note motif, his “ideal” manifestation of the beloved, which also appears in the first of his Two Portraits for orchestra.

German violinist Isabelle Faust, who has studied with Bartok's students and scholars, plays it sans vibrato and takes an objective rather than emotional view of its development and denouement. The second movement is more closely aligned to the folksong and dance traditions of its successor. For Concerto No.2, she reveals a more showy side of the composer, and the playing takes on a freer and more uninhibited complexion. Interestingly, Faust and British conductor Daniel Harding opt for Bartok's original version of the final coda, instead of the more virtuosic close written to oblige his first soloist, who wanted to play to the end. Here, the trombones get the honour of sweeping away the listeners instead. This is a surprising but pleasingly authentic touch.

PUMEZA, Soprano
Decca 478 7605 / ****1/2

Voice Of Hope is the debut album of Pumeza Matshikiza, the South African soprano born and bred in the townships of Eastern Cape during the discriminatory years of Apartheid rule, who successfully auditioned to study at London's Royal College of Music. Now a member of Stuttgart Opera, she made headlines by singing at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Although there are four operatic arias by Puccini and Mozart included, it is the South African songs that resonate most through her passionate ownership of this music and natural way with native African lyrics.

Among these are Thula Baba (a tender lullaby in Xhosa and Zulu), Malaika (a sad Swahili love song) and The Click Song, with the clicking consonants of the Xhosa language, which she sang at the 2011 wedding of Prince Albert of Monaco. The selections are also a tribute to folk singer Miriam Makeba (1932-2008), known as Mama Africa, who popularised songs like Pata Pata, Saduva, Lakutshon'ilanga and The Naughty Little Flea, which employs Caribbean calypso rhythms. South African composer Kevin Volans, Pumeza's mentor, is honoured with the song Umzi Watsha (The House Is Burning), based on nursery songs.

She closes with John MacLellan's Freedom Come All Ye, although a Scottish song but one that espouses universal values and peace, with a reference to one of the townships she had lived in. The orchestrations are light and enjoyable, and the overall message an inspiring one. 

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