Thursday, 14 May 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, May 2015)

BRAHMS Works for Solo Piano Vols.2 & 3
Chandos 10757 & 10833 / ****1/2

The renowned Irish pianist Barry Douglas' survey of the complete solo piano music of Johannes Brahms continues with the schema of short pieces juxtaposed with a major work. The German composer's three piano sonatas are large-scaled early works, wrought from a hot-headed and less than subtle barnstorming young Turk, who was still under the thrall of Beethoven. His Second Sonata in F sharp minor (Op.2), the main work of Volume 3, suffers from a surfeit of rhetoric with themes that do not seem to build to any sustained statement. Much better is the Third Sonata in F minor (Op.5), which concludes Volume 2, where thematic unity within its five movements makes up for its sprawling 37 minutes.

The shorter pieces which open both discs are judiciously chosen and well sequenced. Volume 2 contains three Ballades (from Op.10 and Op.118), which are totally varied in mood and style. Volume 3 opens with 16 Waltzes (Op.39), performed with elegance belying their humble length and origin. This is followed by the underrated and rarely heard Theme And Variations in D minor, a masterly transcription of the second movement from Brahms' String Sextet No.1. Both also contain a selection of Intermezzos, the preferred description of his later pieces, which are true gems. Douglas is a most persuasive interpreter, a true Brahmsian who will not disappoint.

Warsaw Philharmonic / ANTONI WIT
Naxos 8.572716 / ****1/2

Stanislaw Moniuszko (1819-1892) has been regarded as the most prominent Polish composer between  Frederic Chopin and Karol Szymanowski. Like his famous compatriots, his music was also strongly nationalistic, as Poland valiantly fought off political and military advances of neighbouring Russia. Moniuszko was best known for his stage works, including operas and operettas, from which this all-orchestral selection draws. This well-filled disc however opens with Bajka (The Fairy Tale), composed in 1848, a stand-alone fantasy that unfolds dramatically like a Liszt symphonic poem or Dvorak overture.

Among the operatic overtures, there are some memorable melodies in Halka (1848, by far his best known opera), Paria (1869, considered a flop because the music was considered “not Indian enough”), The  Raftsman (1858) and The Countess (1859), which are substantial works. Much of the music in overtures like Verbum Mobile (1860), Jawnuta (1860), The New Don Quixote (1841) and The Hetman's Mistress (1854) is light and bubbly, in the manner of Suppe, Offenbach and Smetana, who were Moniuszko's close contemporaries. The Grammy Award winning team of the Warsaw Philharmonic and Antoni Wit give lively and ebullient performances that are unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon.

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