Wednesday, 21 September 2016

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2016)

Complete Deutsche Grammophon Recordings
DG 479 4651 (24 CDs) / *****

Emil Gilels (1916-1985) was one of two great Ukraine-born Soviet pianists to emerge and charm the West during the height of the Cold War, the other being the longer-lived and better-known Sviatoslav Richter. Commemorating the centenary of Gilels’ birth, the German yellow label has reissued its archive of his complete studio recordings, made during a relatively short window from 1970 to 1985.

His playing is warm and generous, extremely musical and never obsessed with virtuosity for its own sake. These are best heard in both of Brahms’ piano concertos (with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Eugen Jochum), possibly the best in the catalogue, Brahms’ First Piano Quartet, Schubert’s Trout Quintet, the short musings of Grieg's Lyric Pieces and four-hand works by Mozart and Schubert (with his daughter Elena).

His premature death following a botched surgical procedure meant his Beethoven sonata cycle was tantalisingly incomplete (he had 5 sonatas to go), but one fortunately gets to hear his Gramophone Award-winning Hammerklavier Sonata, which is magnificent. 

Gilels' earlier recordings on Melodiya from the 1930-50s issued by the Westminster label includes recitals (with Scarlatti, Schumann, Liszt, Medtner and various encores) and chamber music. There is however no Khachaturian piano concerto as one cover wrongly displays, but the third concertos of Prokofiev and Kabalevsky. Here are many hours of rewarding listening.      

TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto
MusicaAeterna / Teodor Currentzis
Sony Classical 88875165122 / ***1/2

First off, kudos to Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis and his orchestra and opera chorus from the Russian city of Perm for attempting this adventurous coupling of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky with the celebration of Russian peasantry as a common theme. There are staged photographs of a village wedding with him and Russian-Austrian violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja as husband and wife with love letters serving as programme notes. As a concept, this is first rate.

However, Kopatchinskaja's “brave new world” view of Tchaikovsky's popular Violin Concerto is one of the ugliest on record. Her preening demeanour, alternating slashing and percussive bowing, with deliberate extremes of dynamics and dry vitriolic tone is jarring. This may come across as exciting in concert but makes for irritating repeated listening. She decries “moronic violinism” in her notes, but that is exactly what she serves up.

This is fortunately offset by one of the best recordings of Stravinsky's choral ballet Les Noces (The Wedding), which truly captures the raucous and earthy happenings of rustic matrimonials. Sung in Russian, the soloists and chorus are undeniably authentic and vividly recorded. So, its 2 stars for the Tchaikovsky and 5 for Stravinsky, which makes 3 and a half in total.

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