Wednesday, 2 September 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2015)

MAHLER Symphony No.7
Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 479 1700 / *****

Slowly but surely, Venezuelan superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel is putting out his own cycle of Mahler symphonies on the German yellow label, shared by the orchestras he directs, the Simon Bolivar Symphony of Venezuela and Los Angeles Philharmonic. Mahler's Seventh Symphony (1905) is his third Mahler recording and in certain ways the best so far. Unlike the Ninth Symphony where a Klemperer-like expansive view is taken, his vision of the Seventh is relatively short-winded, clocking in at just under 79 minutes.

Often considered the most problematic of Mahler's ten symphonies, Dudamel is not bogged down by its details, which include two long movements book-ending two movements titled Nachtmusik I and II and a mysterious scherzo in between. The opening movement is well-judged, and one feels the tension only after it has been released, the detumescence being as breathtaking as it is hypnotic. The moods in the three central movements are varied enough to sustain interest while the rumbling finale does not ramble but gets to the point soon enough. Think that Dudamel is nothing but all flash and machismo? This sumptuous live recording, which captures all the finer nuances, shows he is a thinking and feeling maestro as well.  

PROKOFIEV Works for Piano
Mirare 165 / *****

This is an excellent introduction to the early piano works of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), composed between 1912 and 1917, before his self-imposed exile to the West during the Bolshevik Revolution. All the elements that defined his musical style are in evidence. These include the relentless motor-like, industrial juggernaut that is his fearsome Toccata Op.11, to be distinguished from the searing dissonances and grotesqueries that is the Sarcasms Op.17. The Ten Pieces Op.12 have titles which suggest a neo-baroque suite of dances, but each is coloured with Prokofiev's trademark wit as viewed through a kaleidoscope. The rippling Prelude (No.7), also written for harp, is easy enough for talented children, and the Scherzo (No.10) a perpetual motion of jinking humour.

The two greatest works here are his Second Sonata Op.14, which combines all these traits in four short movements, and the twenty gems that make up the Visions Fugitives Op.22. Like Chopin's preludes, these diminutive aphorisms are a microcosm of Prokofiev's drolleries, rarefied musical thoughts and unique sound world. Lebanese pianist Abdel Rahman El Bacha is a consummate virtuoso who finely balances technical virtuosity with an innate sense of proportion and poetry. If you thought Prokofiev is not your cup of tea, think again.

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