Wednesday, 7 September 2016

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2016)

BRAHMS Sonata for 2 pianos
SCHUMANN Piano Quintet
Piano 21  044-N / *****

In the homes of 19th century and fin de siécle bourgeoisie, before the advent of radio and gramophones, musical entertainment took the form of the pianoforte and arrangements for multiple hands on the keyboard. 

Here are two classics of chamber music, heard in versions for four hands or two pianos. Johannes Brahms' Sonata in F minor Op.34b for two pianos is the better known, because it has exactly the same music as his popular Piano Quintet. One simply does not miss the strings here, as Brahms' conception was more symphonic rather than texture-based.

The duo of French-Cypriot Cyprien Katsaris and French-Canadian Helene Mercier are totally musical throughout, yet able to summon the forces of passion for the tempestuous Scherzo and the 4th movement's final showdown. 

A true rarity based on another popular work is Robert Schumann's Piano Quintet in E flat major Op.44 in a transcription for piano four hands by his wife Clara Schumann. She was the bona fide piano virtuoso of the couple, and the result is so idiomatic such that one wonders why this is not played more often. Here is a gem of a disc that deserves many listens.     

SIBELIUS The Symphonies
Lahti Symphony / OKKO KAMU
BIS 2076 (3 CDS) / *****

Longing for a symphony cycle by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra? This is the closest thing to it. SSO's Finnish Principal Guest Conductor Okko Kamu has recorded all seven symphonies in his homeland with the Lahti Symphony, where he is Principal Conductor. It is a magnificent set that truly captures Sibelius' heroic and often rough-hewn music.

A way of listening is to follow his progression from first-time symphonist to that of a visionary. Symphony No.1 (1900) on Disc 1 follows from Tchaikovsky's model, then cut off to Disc 2 for the popular Symphony No.2 (1902) as he is established as Finland's patriot. 

This is followed by Symphony No.5 (1919) which shares its bluster and rhetoric. Disc 3 brings together the lightly-textured Symphony No.3 (1907), Symphony No.6 (1923) and the compact Symphony No.7 (1924), which is the shortest symphony comprising his longest single movement.

Then return to Disc 1 to conclude with the enigmatic Symphony No.4 (1911), the bleakest of utterances that ponders the future, as if staring into an abyss. Sibelius' conception revolutionised the 20th century symphony form, in the manner that Beethoven did a century before.    

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