Wednesday, 30 September 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2015)

Dimension Piano Trio
Champs Hill 060 / *****

In 1907, a philanthropist and amateur musician named Walter Cobbett held a competition for new compositions in the piano trio genre based on the subject of a one-movement “phantasie”. The 1st prize of 50 pounds was awarded to Frank Bridge (1879-1941), who had composed his Phantasie in C minor. The work encompassed high passion and languidity, with a central section of scherzo-like playfulness. His style was influenced by the likes of Brahms, FaurĂ© and Richard Strauss. Coming in second was John Ireland (1879-1962) whose Phantasie in A minor, more sanguine work with a most serene conclusion, was rewarded just 10 pounds.

Performing these in this highly rewarding album are the trio of violinist Rafal Zambrzycki-Payne, cellist Thomas Carroll and pianist Anthony Hewitt. Their vivid advocacy is second to none. The longest work is however Eduard Steuermann's highly idiomatic piano trio arrangement of Schoenberg's famous String Sextet, entitled Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), portraying the anguished emotions of an estranged couple on a midnight walk. The work however ends peaceably and with a reaffirmation of love. The filler is brief but no less fine: Josef Suk's Elegie deserves more than an occasional airing. The recorded sound is excellent, hence essential listening for chamber music aficionados.      

Mercury Classics  0028948114863 / *

Purists, look away now as yet another crossover project attempts to breathe new life into the well-worn classics. Polish composer Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) is the victim here, as young Icelandic composer and multimedia artist Olafur Arnalds deconstructs his music with the help of a somewhat misguided German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott and an Icelandic string quartet. Five of nine tracks in this short 46-minute long album are Arnalds' meditations on short motifs and harmonic sequences to be found in Chopin's pieces. All these are slow and dreamy, including Verses and Written In Stone, based on a recurrent accompanying pattern in the 3rd movement of Chopin's Third Sonata.

Ott plays the original version of the Largo, the Raindrop Prelude, the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne (with violinist Mari Samuelsen in Nathan Milstein's transcription), and exasperatingly truncated versions of the G minor and C minor Nocturnes. But what is gained for some of these to be accompanied by deliberately added background sounds? Arnald's Eyes Shut / Nocturne In C Minor and Letters Of A Traveller (based on the Nocturne Op.27 No.2) hint at Chopin's genius but fail to deliver on his end. All of this is atmospheric aural wallpaper which might please New Agers, but do nothing for our understanding or enjoyment of the real Chopin. A waste of time, money and shelf-space, really.   

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