Wednesday, 30 March 2016

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, March 2016)

GODOWSKY Walzermasken
Marco Polo 8.225276 / *****

The Polish-American virtuoso pianist Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938) is best remembered for his outlandishly contrapuntal rearrangements of Chopin's Etudes and various outrageous piano transcriptions, but his original music has been much neglected. Walzermasker (Waltz Masks) is a cycle of 24 pieces in three-quarter rhythm composed in 1912, essentially waltzes in elaborate costumes and disguises.

The tradition of waltz-cycles is not new, and Godowsky does let one in on his secrets. Each piece is teasingly titled (such as Momento Capriccioso, Valse Macabre and Orientale) and there are tributes to Schumann (the ecstatic opening is reminiscent of his Carnaval), Schubert (lilting and rustic), Brahms (jaunty and vigorous), Chopin (lyrical and coy), Liszt (naturally virtuosic) before closing with Johann Strauss II (with Viennese voluptuosness).  

As if one were not done with waltzes, the album closes with Godowsky's Symphonic Metamorphosis on Johann Strauss' Artists Life, another of those seemingly unplayable paraphrases. Siberia-born super-virtuoso Konstantin Scherbakov makes light work of its digital excesses, and that is how it is supposed to sound: complex yet seemingly effortless.

FAURÉ Violin Sonata No.1
R.STRAUSS Violin Sonata
Deutsche Grammophon 481 17741 / *****

It is hard to believe that the celebrated Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman is now 70. A long-awaited return to the recording studio yields this lovely coupling of lyrical violin sonatas from the late Romantic period. His much-beloved sweet and singing violin tone is gloriously intact, undiminished by the intervening years. This is immediately apparent in the soaring opening melody of Frenchman Gabriel Fauré's First Violin Sonata in A major (1875), which is reciprocated by partner Emanuel Ax in the intricate and immensely taxing piano part.

A wide-eyed sense of fantasy occupies its four movements, which will touch even the most jaded of listeners. This same exalted state continues into Richard Strauss' early Violin Sonata in E flat major (1887), with its succession of flowing melodies finds the most sympathetic of interpretations. Has the slow movement, entitled Improvisation, sounded this beguiling or beautiful? Perlman and Ax  are peerless in this repertoire, and this album is a welcome addition into an already crowded field of excellent recordings.

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