Thursday, 18 June 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, June 2015)

SCHUMANN Piano Works
Chandos 10755 & 10841 / *****

These are the first two discs of what appears to a recorded cycle of piano works of German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856), by esteemed British pianist Imogen Cooper, offering very satisfying fill-ups by composers of his immediate circle.

The first CD showcases Schumann as a supreme craftsman of both miniatures and larger canvasses. His eight Fantasiestucke Op.12 (Fantasy Pieces) runs the full gamut of expression, from the blissful calm of Des Abends (Evening), virtuosic upheavals of In der Nacht (In The Night) and the flight of whimsy in Traumes Wirren (Restless Dreams). Also in eight but linked parts is Kreisleriana Op.16, one of his greatest rhapsodic works, inspired by author E.T.A.Hoffmann's literary creation. The Theme and Variations in D minor (from the First String Sextet) by the precocious Johannes Brahms, who was a young confidante of the Schumanns, makes a sober but apt addition.    

The second disc is dominated by the multi-part Humoreske Op.20, another work alternating lyricism and turbulence (although less stormy than Kreisleriana), and the First Sonata in F sharp minor Op.11, the most often performed of his three sonatas. One point of interest is the inclusion of his teenaged wife-to-be Clara Wieck's Le Ballet des Revenants (Op.5 No.4), which shares the same theme as the 1st movement exposition of the sonata. Cooper performs these in succession, establishing the thematic and emotional links between the two lovers. The performances in both discs are unfailingly musical and enhance the appreciation of the Schumanns and their world.

Signum Classics 376 (2 CDs) / ****1/2

The year 1917 was a tumultuous one. Europe was still in mired in war while the Russian tsar had just been overthrown. Music was entering into a modernistic, iconoclastic and atonal phase. The works on this album by four major composers, all written in this year, recorded their reactions to the earth-shaking events around them. All are tonal but radically different.

Debussy's Violin Sonata in G minor was conceived near his death, a brief rhapsodic work that meant to freely espouse French aesthetics while repudiating stolid German ones. Sibelius' Five Pieces Op.81 have a salon quality and include a mazurka, waltz, rondino and minuet, charming dances bringing to mind the bygone world of Kreisler's miniatures. Respighi's Violin Sonata in B minor is darkly hewn but concludes with a passacaglia, the ancient variations form from the baroque. Elgar's Violin Sonata in E minor also looks back with nostalgia to a more innocent age but not without struggles to cope with the present.

Young British violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen coaxes a beautiful tone from her 1721 Stradivarius, capturing both the dramatic and lyrical vistas of these works. Both she and pianist Huw Watkins are vividly recorded, and this 85-minute recital (on 2 discs priced as one) never fails to engage. 

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