Wednesday, 26 August 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2015)

& HOUGH Cello Sonatas
Hyperion 68079 / *****

How does British pianist-composer Stephen Hough's Cello Sonata figure in this new album of Romantic cello sonatas? Interestingly it is scored for cello and piano left hand and carries the Beethovenian subtitle “Les Adieux” (The Farewell). A single-movement work playing for 20 minutes, it is a darkly introspective work that distils the fraught and melancholic emotions of Romanticism through a tonal musical language that is as approachable as Shostakovich, Ravel and Fauré. Perhaps expressing regret, sorrow and parting, it receives a heartfelt performance from British cellist Steven Isserlis and the composer himself as pianist.

The work sits comfortably two rather different and not so often heard Romantic sonatas. Edvard Grieg's Cello Sonata in G minor (Op.36) was the closest thing he wrote to a cello concerto, and includes familiar themes to be found in his earlier Piano Concerto and Sigurd Josalfar incidental music. Another instance of musical deja vu (“Where have we heard this before?”), Mendelssohn's Second Cello Sonata in D major (Op.38) is typical of his ebullience and tunefulness, a good example of the early Romantic style. The juxtapositions on this album make total sense, and the high musicianship displayed by both performers is to be savoured.  

Kremerata Baltica
Deutsche Grammophon 479 4817 / ***

Is it blasphemous to state that “emperor's new clothes” is the reason why every new work by American composer Philip Glass is greeted with nothing but adulation? In his Second Violin Concerto (2010), also known as The American Four Seasons, he rehashes just about every cliché he has worked to death in earlier works, including his First Violin Concerto (1987). The Seasons are in 8 parts, with a Bachian solo (entitled Prologue and Songs Nos.1 to 3) preceding each movement proper. As expected, the limited musical material is built upon tonal triads and repeated endlessly to pad up its 40-plus minutes. So what else is new?

Georgian composer Giya Kancheli's Ex Contrario (2006) for violin, cello, keyboard, bass guitar and strings is minimalist in a different way. Its static pace, long stretches of pianissimo and gaping silences are drawn out to an almost interminable half hour. As brief fillers, the Estonian Arvo Pärt but cheerful Estonian Lullaby features the Girls Choir from the Vilnius Choir School, while Shigeru Umebayashi Yumeji's Theme from the film In The Mood For Love is sentimental and soothing movie music with a popular twist. Superstar Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer and his string band give slick and polished performances in the demonstration class, but that is the very least one would expect for the premium-priced outlay involved.

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