Wednesday, 23 September 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2015)

EuroArts 2061288 (DVD) / ****

The 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, held in Fort Worth (Texas) in 2013, was the first edition of American's most prestigious competition to take place after the death of its muse, the American pianist Van Cliburn (1934-2013). He had become an international superstar and national hero after winning the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 1958. 

The competition’s  documentary movie, directed by Christopher Wilkinson, follows its predecessors by having a linear narrative, beginning with 30 competing pianists arriving from all over the world, the piano selection process and performance footages, all the way to the prize presentation ceremony. Where it departs from the others is its focus on pianists as individuals with high hopes and ambitions, who stake their reputations and lives for their art, as well as the role of music critics.

Even the “losers” get a look-in, particularly the elimination of baby-faced American Steven Lin (an audience favourite who was perhaps deemed to lack gravitas, left) and the angst-ridden Italian Alessandro Deljavan (who probably displayed too much angst for comfort). 

In the bonus section, there are performances by the eventual prizewinners Vadym Kholodenko (in Liszt's Wilde Jagd), Beatrice Rana (Ravel's Scarbo) and Sean Chen (Scriabin's Sonata No.5). Somehow through the proceedings, one gets the subliminal message that this competition, with typically American glitz, glamour and big money, was becoming a triumph of youthful proficiency and marketability over plain and good old (and sometimes boring) artistry.  

Violin Concerto No.1
Mariinsky Orchestra / VALERY GERGIEV
Mariinsky 0524 / *****

Here are two works of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) that could have landed him in trouble, even risking time in a gulag. In the eyes and ears of Soviet cultural watchdogs under the Stalinist regime, their musical message would have been marked as subversive. His Ninth Symphony Op.70 was composed in 1945 near the end of the Great Patriotic War, and instead of a grand life-affirming Ninth in the joyous manner of Beethoven that was expected, the result was a short and unusually wry account of faux-rejoicing. There are three fast movements of enforced gaiety separated by two dark slow movements. The 4th and 5th  movements are linked by a mocking bassoon solo, an instrument he frequently associated with bumbling bureaucracy.

The First Violin Concerto (originally Op.77, later revised to Op.99) was completed in 1948, but its premiere was witheld until 1955, after the death of Stalin. A pessimistic tone and the incorporation of Jewish klezmer elements were deemed inappropriate during a climate of artistic censorship and anti-Semitism. It has now become one of the most performed 20th century concertos, and Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos gives a searing performance that does not stint on its communicative power and shock value. The Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev are close to ideal interpreters, acutely aware of the music's trenchant qualities and having Shostakovich's ironic idiom in their blood.   

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