Wednesday, 20 April 2016

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, April 2016)

Sony Classical 88875064162 / ****1/2

The venerated American pianist Leon Fleisher, once afflicted with focal dystonia of the right hand, has returned to play piano repertoire for both hands. This album sees him joined by his wife and former-student Katherine Jacobson in a lovely programme for piano duet. Johannes Brahms' Liebeslieder Walzer (Love Song Waltzes), heard here without the voices, is a more extended and mellower follow-up to his Waltzes Op.39.

The Fleishers play with great sensitivity and sympathy for the idiom, and this gemütlich (carefree and relaxed like only the Viennese know how) feeling continues into Franz Schubert's masterpiece Fantasy in F minor, which rises to dramatic height from its initial lilting indolence.

The concert closes with Lucien Garban's transcription for piano duet of Maurice Ravel's La Valse. Confined to a single keyboard, its range seems unusually constricted for most part, but the duo generates a voluminous sound and much excitement towards its climactic end. The encore is a 4-hand arrangement of living American composer William Bolcom's most famous short piece, The Graceful Ghost Rag, rendered with rare finesse and nostalgia.

Carnegie Concerts CC017 / ****1/2

Here is an excellently-programme recital of piano music inspired by Western composers' fascination with the Orient. Its generous 77 minutes of exotica may be subdivided into three parts. First is traditional musical picture-postcard views represented by Debussy's Estampes (Pagodas evoke the sound of gamelans), Godowsky's Gardens Of Buitenzorg (after the famous botanic gardens in Bogor) and Ravel's Jeux D'Eau with its cascades of pentatonics.

The substantial central section delves deeper with Szymanowski's Sheherazade (from Masques), Messiaen's ferociously complex Canteyodjaya (which in Sanskrit translates into “song of joy”), Australian Peter Sculthorpe's Harbour Dreaming and Indonesian Krisna Setiawan's AgMaTa 1, which relives techniques used in gamelan music and the kecak dance.

The final and lightest third part approximates kitsch, closing with Abram Chasins' Three Chinese Pieces (the best known is Rush Hour In Hong Kong) and Percy Grainger's Beautiful Fresh Flower, a transcription of Molihua. Australia-born British pianist Geoffrey Saba has the requisite technique, sense of colour and shade to do his selections justice, and this is accompanied by well researched programme notes and historical illustrations.

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