Wednesday, 1 July 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, July 2015)

BRAHMS Symphonies Nos.3 & 4
Transcribed by Idil Biret
Idil Biret Archive 8.571303-04 (2 CDs) 

It may seem a thankless task to transcribe symphonies for the piano, essentially reducing orchestral textures and sonorities to the constraints of the two hands and ten fingers of a single performer. This is essentially what the venerated Turkish pianist Idil Biret did with two of Johannes Brahms symphonies, working on a pre-existing score for piano four hands and performing them in concert. The recordings from two such events in Paris in 1995 and 1997 are revealing. The architecture of the music is retained, and while some colours are lost, how Biret voices the parts and brings out the music's grandeur with stunning panache are what make these documents relevant.    

Tempos are broader, and there are some missed notes in the heat of action, but these seem almost inconsequential. Imagine what Franz Liszt did for Beethoven's symphonies or Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique in private performances during his heyday. Biret has even recorded these, and Brahms' Third and Fourth Symphonies receive the same grandstanding treatment, which sound better with repeated listening. Biret also includes performances of Brahms’ Paganini Variations, and selections of Hungarian Dances and Capriccios, all virtuoso fare. Pianophiles need not hesitate.  

Soloists with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
Vasily Petrenko, Conductor
Naxos 8.573132 / *****

The Fourteenth Symphony (1969) of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) is more of a song cycle in 11 movements, scored for two solo voices, strings and percussion, rather than a conventional symphony. The work is a setting of poems (in Russian translations) by Federico Garcia Lorca, Guillaume Apollinaire, Rainer Maria Rilke, all of whom died prematurely. Composed in relatively ill health, the overriding theme is mortality and the anticipation of death. Every movement with the exception of the 8th (The Zaparozhe Cossacks Reply To The Sultan Of Constantinople, a rebuke against authoritarianism), is death-obsessed in some way or another.  

Its highly dramatic content is arguably far better experienced in a concert hall, especially movements like Malaguena (literally a dance of death), the mock-comical On Watch (foreshadowing death on the battlefield) and even the very brief Conclusion with a duet proclaiming “Death is great / We are his...,” which ends abruptly and without any fanfare. The soloists, Alexander Vinogradov (a true bass in the great Russian tradition) and Israeli soprano Gal James, give vividly chilling performances. There is no coupling to the final instalment of Vasily Petrenko's all-round excellent Shostakovich symphony cycle with his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, but what could possibly follow this excellent and gripping recording of Shostakovich's darkest and most bitter symphony?  

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