Wednesday, 11 November 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, November 2015)

POULENC Piano Music
KNS Classical 040 / ****1/2

The piano music of Frenchman Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) comes from a bygone era, filled with the song-like charm of the Belle Epoque and influenced by popular trends of the day in Gay Paree. His persona was both rascal and saint, displaying seemingly contradictory facets of his personal life: a bon vivant with a deep inner spirituality informed by his Roman Catholic faith. This album brings together his most popular works for piano; the popular and witty Trois Mouvements Perpetuels, with the quintessential characteristics which are further delved in his Three Novelettes and Three Intermezzos.

The 15 Improvisations are delectable shavings from the master's work desk, which include a waltz in homage to Schubert and a heartfelt homage to songstress Edith Piaf. Poulenc's genuine gift of melody comes across most sympathetically in Melancolie, which at 5 minutes is his longest piano piece, and the chanson Les Chemins De L'Amour (The Paths Of Love). The latter was never notated but improvised from the song itself. Young Singaporean pianist Wang Congyu studied in Paris with Gabriel Tacchino, the composer's only formal student. His playing is elegant and refined, an excellent introduction to Poulenc's uniquely personal sound world.


WANG CONGYU Piano Recital
AGF Auditorium, Alliance Francaise
Sunday (15 November 2015), 7.30 pm
Tickets at $28 available at:  or Tel: 6838-0525

Stuttgart Philharmonic / Radoslaw Szulc
Onyx Classics 4148 / *****

The exciting Serbian duo of Lidija and Sanja Bizjak make their first concerto recording with two 20th century double piano concertos that look to the past for inspiration. Think of J.S.Bach's concertos for two keyboards updated to the present, and the Concerto For Two Pianos (1943) by Bohemian composer Bohuslav Martinu comes into view. Its busy play of counterpoint in the fast outer movements, fuelled by his upbeat and kinetic style, makes this a jolly listen. 

Its companion is the equally engaging Concerto For Two Pianos (1932) by Frenchman Francis Poulenc, where Mozart's sensibilities, Javanese gamelan and Gallic charm become equals in an inimitably quirky manner.

The fillers without orchestral backing are just as apt. Stravinsky's Sonata For Two Pianos (1943) is neoclassical in its conception with a droll theme and variations second movement as its centrepiece. Shostakovich's single-movement Concertino (1954), composed for his teenaged son, combines mock-seriousness and genuine gaiety, looking forward to his guilelessly melodious Second Piano Concerto

This seemingly unusual programme by the Bizjak sisters is a total charmer. Their digital brilliance is blessed with a lightness of touch and a generous dose of wit and humour. Its unmitigated success is a given.    

NICHOLAS MCCARTHY, Piano left hand
Warner Classics 0825646052400 / ****1/2

The 26-year-old Briton Nicholas McCarthy was born without a right hand, but in 2012 became the first one-handed pianist to graduate from London's Royal College of Music. His debut solo recording of left hand piano music begins unpromisingly with typically vacuous fare from Ludovico Einaudi and clunky operatic transcriptions where a seamless cantabile is found wanting.

However there is an astonishing sequence of tracks that seals the deal: Frederic Meinder's transcription of Rachmaninov's Vocalise, Count Geza Zichy's transcription of Liszt's Third Liebesträume and two contrasting Chopin-Godowsky Études (Op.10 No.3 and Op.25 No.12), the latter given a thunderous reading that proves his credentials.

Then come three Scriabin pieces, the famous D flat major Nocturne (Op.9 No.2) and two Études (the fearsome Op.8 No.12 with the melancholic Op.2 No.1). Probably the greatest left hand solo work is Felix Blumenfeld's A flat major Étude, which gets a glorious performance it deserves. To wind down, two Gershwin songs (The Man I Love and Summertime) and Nigel Hess' Nocturne, specially commissioned by McCarthy provides some lighter listening. 

Judging by the simplistic entry level programme notes by the pianist himself, this album was clearly aimed at beginners, but seasoned pianophiles need not shy away. 

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