Wednesday, 3 February 2016

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, February 2016)

MSR Classics 1502 (2 CDs) / ****1/2

The British pianist James Brawn takes a break from his Beethoven sonata odyssey to bring this recital, a chronological survey of piano music from the Baroque era to the 20th century. It is filled with short pieces which students typically play in graded examinations and piano competitions. 

For concert pianists, these form the bulk of post-recital encores (and there are some Horowitz favourites among them), after-dinner mints which satisfy and delight. He starts with a pair of Scarlatti Sonatas and a handful of Bach Preludes without the fugues, before proceeding to popular classical era fare, including Mozart's Turkish Rondo and Beethoven's Für Elise.

The Romantic era figures prominently, and the best tracks are the selections from Chopin Études and Rachmaninov Préludes, which are very polished and capture the spirit of the times. The modern age is represented by only two tracks, Prokofiev's coruscating Toccata, and I Got Rhythm from The Gershwin Songbook

Brawn plays sensitively and with exemplary taste, and there is nothing dislike in any of the performances. He is beautifully recorded, and one wishes all young would-be-pianists could follow his example and play like this.  

Boston Pops Orchestra
Decca 478 9244 (2CDs) / ****1/2

This reissue of 1980s recordings by the Boston Pops Orchestra under iconic film composer-conductor John Williams was prompted by the release of Disney's Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. It amply displays the debt that sci-fi movie music owed to classical music, particular works from the early 20th century. 

The first disc is devoted wholly to music by Williams, including favourite tracks from Episodes 4 to 6: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return Of The Jedi, and further music from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T. Where would such music be without Wagner, Richard Strauss, Mahler, Holst, Prokofiev and Korngold, whose compositional styles were appropriated and re-imagined by Williams? 

The second disc begins with the opening of Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, which will always be associated with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The familiar strains from Alien, Battlestar Galactica, The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, both the television (Alexander Courage) and film (Jerry Goldsmith) themes have also been included. 

The main events are the seven movements of The Planets by Englishman Gustav Holst, surely the grandfather of all sci-fi and astrological music. The performances by the summertime occupation of the Boston Symphony are excellent, which might hopefully spur celluloid fans to pay closer attention to what riches the classics can offer. 

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