Wednesday, 13 July 2016

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, July 2016)

LISZT Works for Two Pianos
Piano Duo Genova & Dimitrov
CPO 777 896-2 / ****1/2

The complete solo piano works of Franz Liszt (1811-1886) have been recorded by Leslie Howard, however what is left are his works for piano 4 hands and two pianos. These are rightly considered obscure because of the paucity of concert performances. 

The excellent Bulgarian duo of Aglika Genova and Liuben Dimitrov serves up five tasty pieces, beginning with the Grand Concert Piece on Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words, an oversized elaboration stringing together three miniatures. This is a musical case of making a mountain out of a molehill, but fun nonetheless.

Liszt's operatic conflations, the Reminiscences De Norma (after Bellini) and Reminiscences De Don Juan (after Mozart) are well-known in their piano solo versions. Heard on two pianos, the element of derring-do and risk is diminished on the performers’ parts but are nonetheless exciting. 

The best work is Concerto Pathetique, based on the Grosses Konzertsolo and employing the art of thematic transformation to be found in Liszt's symphonic poems and Sonata in B minor. Completing the album is the Hexameron, a fantastical set of variations on a Bellini theme with contributions from six different composers. This edition is shorter than the solo version, but still worth a listen for its share of high jinks.

CHOPIN Ballades
YUNDI, Piano
Deutsche Grammophon 481 2443 / ****

Frederic Chopin's Four Ballades for piano are four of the Polish-born composer's most exquisite single movement essays, filled with passion, longing and fantasy. However these are more associated with literary rather than musical sources, with the musings of Adam Mickiwiecz, regarded as Poland's national poet, cited as major inspirations. 

The Ballades get what one expects from Li Yundi, who takes a more tempered approach than his rival Lang Lang, without the agogic distortions and deliberately ear-catching exaggerations experienced in concert.

His playing is polished, tasteful, and not without moments of aural beauty. Of the four, the Second Ballade Op.38, with its alternating calm and violence, gets the most satisfying performance. By mostly sticking to the middle of the road, he does not add much more to what regular listeners know about Chopin. 

It is the fillers which hold greater interest. The Berceuse Op.57 is a model of elegant poise, and Yundi fares best in the Four Mazurkas Op.17, where he is one with Chopin's rhythmic subtlety and aching nostalgia.

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