Thursday, 21 May 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, May 2015)

SCRIABIN Piano Concerto
MEDTNER Piano Concerto No.3
Bergen Philharmonic / Andrew Litton
BIS 2088 / *****

This is a most apt coupling of piano concertos by two Russian pianist-composers who were contemporaries of Rachmaninov yet trailed him considerably in terms of popularity. Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) was Rachmaninov's classmate and rival at the Moscow Conservatory. His Piano Concerto of 1896 was an early but transitional work, revealing Chopinesque influences yet gradually finding a voice of his own. It is in the finale, the longest movement, where his flight of fantasy finally takes wing with an impassioned climax that would please any Rachmaninov fan.

Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) was a junior but close friend of Rachmaninov. His Third Piano Concerto (1940) is arguably the best of three he wrote. Cast in three movements played without a break, it exhibits a mastery of the sonata form but does not reveal its secrets on first acquaintance.   More Germanic than Russian, it nevertheless is imbued with the lush Romanticism and scintillating piano writing for which Rachmaninov was acclaimed.  

The young St Petersburg-born pianist Yevgeny Sudbin is a true successor of the great Russian pianists Dmitri Alexeev and Nikolai Demidenko, going one further having recorded all three Medtner concertos. His playing is incisive and brimming with vigour, matched by his own thoughtful programme notes. He quotes Horowitz who once asked, “Why nobody plays Medtner?” The answer is simple: Medtner’s music is often too difficult and cerebral to pull off convincingly. On those counts, Sudbin at least proves him wrong. 

Decca 478 52962 / *****

Young American cellist Alisa Weilerstein's first solo album has an underlying theme based on folk music and dances from around the world. The Hungarian nationalist composer Zoltan Kodaly's Sonata Op.8 is the longest work at over a half hour, with three concentrated movements of impassioned laments and soul searching, typical of deep Slavic melancholy. She launches headlong into the music and does not flinch at its myriad complexities.

Hispanic fire lies at the heart of both contemporary Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov's Omaramor and Spaniard Gaspar Cassado's Suite. The former is a set of variations on Carlos Gardel's My Beloved Buenos Aires, with the melody revealed at the very end. The latter incorporates three dances, a Zaraband, the Sardana (a Catalan dance) and an infectious Jota to close.

Chinese-American Bright Sheng's Seven Tunes Heard In China was dedicated to and premiered by Yo-Yo Ma. Its short movements include the popular song Little Cabbage (Xiao Bai Cai) from Hebei, the onomatopoeic train song Diu Diu Dong from Taiwan and a Tibetan Dance. Weilerstein's outsized cello tones tempered by sensitivity and a variety of timbral colours is joy throughout this magnificent recital. Highly recommended.

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