Wednesday, 2 March 2016

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, March 2016)

MSR Classics 1467 & 1468 / ****1/2

British pianist James Brawn continues on his labour of love with the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas and reaches the halfway mark. While keeping the mature and more profound utterances to later instalments, the earlier sonatas and “nicknamed” sonatas benefit from his direct approach, that of Beethoven as a fearless and unabashed communicator. 

Volume 3 begins with the Sonata in A major (Op.2 No.2) and continues with the “Tempest” Sonata in D minor (Op.31 No.2). Both are possessed with stürm und drang (storm and stress) temperament that was to make Beethoven such a rudely fascinating character. The “Les Adieux” Sonata in E flat major (Op.81a) was his only programmatic sonata, with an abundance of joy, sorrow and exhilaration thrown into the mix.

The longest sonata in Volume 4 is the “Pastoral” Sonata in D major (Op.28), so-named because of its bucolic quality and movements recalling country dances. Its counterpart is the “simple” Sonata in G major (Op.79), another work with German folk influences. 

The balance is filled with short sonatas: the early E major (Op.14 No.1), the deceptively difficult F sharp major (Op.78) and the late E minor (Op.90) with its glorious Schubertian song-like finale which ends all too soon. Brawn plays all of these beautifully, imbued with the quintessential Beethovenian spirit that is hard to resist. More please. 

Champs Hill 084 / ****1/2

Music in the 20th century saw a multiplicity of styles and -isms. Atonalism and serialism were embraced by the academic and compositional establishment but alienated casual listeners. This survey of 20th century clarinet music written during the 1930s to 50s by British clarinettist Emma Johnson steers clear of those, keeping tonality close to her heart. Already familiar to listeners is the music of Sergei Prokofiev's Flute Sonata (1943, also his Violin Sonata No.2), which sounds totally idiomatic and lyrical for the clarinet in her arrangement.

There are fascinating contrasts to be found in the Sonatas of Paul Hindemith (1939)and Nino Rota (1945), the astringency and counterpoint of the German juxtaposed with the more melodious and commercial style of the Italian, better known for his film music. 

Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski's Dances Preludes (1955) make the best case for folk-inspired modernism, while the spirituality of Olivier Messiaen's Abyss Of The Birds from Quartet For The End Of Time (1941) and Vocalise-Etude (1935) elevate music to a higher and more ethereal plain. Johnson has a rich, mellow sound and performs with true feeling and sympathy, which are well-captured in the marvelous recording.

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