Wednesday, 25 November 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, November 2015)

Deutsche Grammophon 479 5096 (2 CDs) 

Concerts are one-in-a-lifetime events, but some linger long in the memory because of the sheer artistry and passion displayed by the artists involved. One such concert took place at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland on 27 July 2007, with Argentina-born pianist Martha Argerich holding court in all but four minutes of its two and a half hours. 

Here she had selected her partners and the works to be performed, essentially a “carte blanche” or blank cheque for the programme. And what a musical feast it proved to be! Her only solo was to be in Schumann's Kinderszenen (Scenes From Childhood), a speciality which she treats with much tenderness.

The spirit of chamber music reigns in Beethoven's Ghost Trio (Op.70 No.1) with violinist Julian Rachlin and cellist Mischa Maisky, a sizzling performance matched by the folk-inspired dissonance of Bartok's Violin Sonata No.1, with violinist Renaud Capucon, and Lutoslawski's Paganini Variations for 2 pianos, with an equally energised Gabriela Montero. 

Lyricism comes in Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata where Yuri Bashmet's viola replaces the customary cello, and Lang Lang in deferential good behaviour as piano partner to Argerich for Schubert's Grande Rondeau (D.951) and Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. The concert ends with Montero playing an improvised Happy Birthday to Maisky’s daughter Lily, much to the delight of the audience. This is a “wish you were there” kind of album that thrills and pleases. 

Decca 478 7946 (53 CDs) / *****

Why do music-lovers still listen to monaural recordings when modern stereophonic and digital sound exists? Back in the 1940s, there were 78 rpm shellacs, which played for four and a half minutes per side. Then came long-playing 33 rpm long-playing records (or LPs) which were boon as one could hear an entire symphony by Mozart or Haydn uninterrupted. 

There were fewer orchestras and recording artists then, so that answer has to be the passionate performances themselves, which have never dimmed over the decades. This Decca retrospective of recordings from 1944 to 1956 pays tribute to its patented Full Frequency Range Recordings (ffrr), which still sound vivid to this day. The pre-1948 recordings are drawn from earlier 78s, which eventually gave way to the LP, whose era ended in the mid-1980s.

The roster of artists is stellar, including conductors Ernest Ansermet (Stravinsky's Petrushka), Erich Kleiber (Beethoven's Ninth Symphony) and the young Georg Solti (Bartok, Kodaly & Haydn), pianists Clifford Curzon (Brahms Piano Concerto No.1) and Friedrich Gulda (Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata) and Moura Lympany (Rachmaninov and Khachaturian concertos), violinists Alfredo Campoli, Christian Ferras and Ruggiero Ricci. 

The playing is at an exalted level. This wonderful collection could be listened to straight through or sampled piecemeal, either of which would be immensely rewarding.      

Sony Classical 88875117582 / ****

So the Chinese phenomenon goes to Paris, but he does not play a single bar of French music in his latest album. Instead, this double disc set showcases Chopin's Four Scherzos and the twelve short pieces that make up Tchaikovsky's The Seasons. A looser interpretation of the title allows for the facts that the Polish Chopin had French ancestry and settled in France for good, and the Russian Tchaikovsky was a Francophone and Francophile.

Some bad habits which plagued Lang's performances of Chopin's four Ballades in Singapore linger, like banging, ear-catching accents and deliberate rubatos for their own sake. The First Scherzo suffers the most, but thankfully it improves with the other three. The Tchaikovsky pieces, each corresponding to the months of a calendar year, fares better. 

Each is well characterised, such as the popular Barcarolle (June), Autumn Song (October) and Troika (November). Even if certain liberties are taken to stretch out the music, these do not come across as crass. Devotees need not hesitate because like Horowitz, Lang Lang's marketing machinery and celebrity status has become a rule to his own. 

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