Thursday, 25 June 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, June 2015)

DVORAK Complete Symphonies & Concertos
Czech Philharmonic
Jiri Belohlavek, Conductor
Decca 478 6757 (6 CDs) / *****

It was not until the late 1950s that it was known that the celebrated Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) had composed nine symphonies. Early recordings of the “New World” Symphony were designated as Symphony No.5 in E minor, rather than No.9 as we know it today. This box-set places the early symphonies in context with his famous later ones and the well-trodden concertos. The first two symphonies, composed in 1865, are ambitious works playing well over 45 minutes, mostly influenced by Schumann. The Third Symphony (1873), the only one in three movements, looks towards Wagner's progressive style, and he began to develop his own distinctive voice in the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies (1874 & 1875) with Czech nationalism as a driving force.

The last four symphonies are regularly performed in concert and stand the test of posterity. The Czech Philharmonic under Jiri Belohlavek invests an equal quantum of dedication to all nine of them. They possess the spirit of the music literally in their veins, playing with passion and authority that makes a chronologically guided listen to the cycle a pleasurable experience. Five of the discs play for over 80 minutes, and the first three symphonies are coupled with the Cello Concerto (with Alisa Weilerstein), Violin Concerto (Frank Peter Zimmerman) and Piano Concerto (Garrick Ohlsson). These too are very fine performances, which confirm Dvorak as one of the great symphonists of the 19th century

Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic
Sascha Goetzel, Conductor
Onyx Classics 4048 / *****

The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1999, establishing itself to be Turkey's premier symphony orchestra. In 2014, it was invited to perform at the BBC Proms (together with orchestras from Singapore, China, South Korea and Australia) in celebration of the globalisation of the Western orchestra. Like the Singapore Symphony, it has positioned itself as an “West meets East” ensemble that specialises in repertoire that bridges the cross-cultural divide. This debut recording does just that, programmed with the theme of “Oriental femme fatales”. None of the composers were genuine ethno-musicologists, thus their music was largely based on their own exotic interpretations of Middle or Far Eastern culture and aesthetics.  

Ottorino Respighi's 4-movement Suite from the his ballet Belkis, Queen of Sheba is hewn from the same opulent canvas as his Roman Trilogy, with the addition of Arabian drums for that extra element of exoticism. Paul Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber works chinoiserie and fugal exuberance into its second movement, inspired by the Chinese princess Turandot. Florent Schmitt's symphonic poem The Tragedy of Salome is the longest work here, more French impressionism and Oscar Wilde than anything truly Palestinian. The performances are exciting and vividly recorded in this audio spectacular, even if authenticism is in short supply.  

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