Thursday, 7 May 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, May 2015)

HINDEMITH Complete Piano Concertos
Yale Symphony / Toshiyuki Shimada
Naxos 8.373201-02 (2CDs) / ****1/2

Of the five works for piano and orchestra by German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), presented as a set here for the first time, only one was designated a piano concerto. His Concerto for Piano & Orchestra (1945) is rarely heard but interesting as it contains a set of variations on the medieval song Tre Fontane as its final movement. The best known is however The Four Temperaments (1940), another work in the variations form, originally conceived as a ballet. 

Typical of the composer was to append apparently mundane titles to these works. Such was Piano Music With Orchestra (1923) for piano left hand, which had been rejected by the left handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein and rediscovered as recently as 2001. Chamber Music No.2 (1924) is another such work, which harks back to the baroque concerto grosso in form and scoring. The revelation is Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Two Harps (1930) which is very transparent in textures despite the unusual forces employed.

Hindemith's idiom is dissonant but tonal, with astringent themes which sound better with repeated acquaintance. His Bachian mastery of counterpoint is indisputable which make these works an unusually good listening. The historical significance of this album recorded in 2013 is timely and relevant as it was Hindemith who revolutionised music education in Turkey which produced Idil Biret as its finest musical prodigy. He then went on to teach composition in Yale as one of its most distinguished professors. The performances by Biret and the Yale Symphony are incisive and committed, befitting the 50th anniversary of Hindemith's passing.

SCHUMANN Paganini Caprices 
& Humoreske
Naxos 8.572374 / ****1/2

Robert Schumann, the arch anti-virtuoso, must have taken a shine to Paganini's 24 Caprices for solo violin. Why else would he have contributed piano accompaniments for the notorious finger-twisters or transcribed twelve of these for solo piano? His two sets of six studies each (Op.3 and 10) are direct transcriptions of Paganini Caprices as finger exercises, but are far more faithful to the originals than Liszt's Six Paganini Etudes. There is much familiar music here. From Op.3, No.1 is the Arpeggio Caprice, while No.2 is La Chasse (The Chase) and No.4, is the one known as “The Devil's Laugh”.

There is much on the violin which the piano cannot replicate, but Schumann makes up in other ways by way of adding harmonies that further rather than detract from the original conceptions. The Op.10 set are longer elaborations, especially on the slower caprices, and the sound palette soon moves away from Paganini to become more Schumann. Ukrainian pianist Mariya Kim, laureate of multiple competitions, has the full measure of the spirit and fingers for these technically demanding pieces.

Her generous coupling is Humoreske (Op.20), presented in a single 34-minute-long track. No separate tracks are provided for its seemingly disparate sections, which cohere very well in a beautifully idiomatic performance that in certain respects even surpasses that of Kim's famous compatriot, the great Vladimir Horowitz.

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