Wednesday, 9 March 2016

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, March 2016)

Complete RCA Album Collection
Sony Classical 88875030742 (5 CDs) / *****

The long-lived Earl Wild (1915-2010) carved a patchy concert career that awkwardly straddled between the dying embers of “Golden Age” piano-playing and an era of objectivity and an obeisant approach to musical scores. 

The epithet of “the last Romantic” applied to him as well as contemporaries Jorge Bolet and Shura Cherkassky, major artists whose careers were sidelined for decades before being finally recognised in their old age for uniqueness and individuality. Wild recorded for many labels but never received a sustained contract, and this box-set of RCA Victor recordings dating mostly between 1959 and 1973 showed what might have been.

All five discs house virtuoso works for piano and orchestra. The piano concertos by Xaver Scharwenka (No.1 in B flat minor) and Ignace Paderewski (A minor) must simply not be missed for their over-the-top romanticism and luscious melodies which Wild simply revelled in. His takes from 1969-1970 are still considered the gold standard for this under-performed repertoire, as are his 1959-1961 recordings of Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue, Piano Concerto In F and I Got Rhythm Variations with the Boston Pops Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler. 

One will also not find a more outlandish account of Liszt's Hungarian Fantasy. Here he adds his own flourishes and embellishments, which one suspects the composer would have heartily encouraged. Wild was an outsized maverick talent who will be sadly missed.

Deutsche Grammophon 479 5404 (11 CDs) 

This is a collaboration between the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw and the German yellow label to reissue performances of Chopin's piano music by past winners of the Chopin International Piano Competition. The 18 selected pianists date from the first competition in 1927, won by the Russian Lev Oborin, all the way to 2010, when another Russian Yulianna Avdeeva was crowned. 

In between are the famous likes of Maurizio Pollini (1960), Martha Argerich (1965), Garrick Ohlsson (1970) and Krystian Zimerman (1975), together with Dang Thai Son (1980), Stanislav Bunin (1985), Li Yundi (2000) and Rafal Blechacz (2005) among others.

Here the Deutsche Grammophon archive is mined and handily rehashed, which makes for an excellent introduction to first-time listeners of Chopin’s concertos, √Čtudes, Pr√©ludes, Ballades, Scherzos, Polonaises and Sonatas. The notes make no mention whatsoever that no first prize was awarded in 1990 and 1995, so performances by second-placed artists (Kevin Kenner, Philippe Giusiano and the late Alexei Sultanov, by no means second-rate pianists) are also included. 

Here is a true feast of piano's favourite composer, which include rare historical performances from Alexander Uninsky (1932), Yakov Zak (1937), Bella Davidovich and Halina Czerny-Stefanska (Joint 1st Prize, 1949) and Adam Harasiewicz (1955). Only a few performances were recorded from the competition's actual rounds, but that should not be a deterrent.

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