Wednesday, 12 October 2016

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, October 2016)

COKE 24 Preludes
15 Variations & Finale
Somm 0147 / ****1/2

Spare a thought for English composer Roger Sachaverell Coke (1912-1972), a contemporary of Benjamin Britten and composer of six piano concertos and three symphonies, who has virtually been forgotten. He shared a piano teacher with the future Queen Elizabeth II and a composition teacher with Singaporean composer Kam Kee Yong. He was also a good friend of Rachmaninov's, whose composition style influenced his own.

Witness his 24 Preludes for piano, laid out in two separate sets (Op.33 and 34) between 1938 and 1941, which are rich in late Romantic sensibilities and harmonies, dark and brooding in demeanour. Running about 50 minutes in duration, they are longer than Chopin and Scriabin's Preludes but less discursive than Rachmaninov's own. 

The 15 Variations & Finale (Op.37) has the potential of being a classic. It is imaginatively written, with precedents in Mendelssohn's Variations Serieuses and Rachmaninov's Chopin Variations.

The young English pianist Simon Callaghan who presents these premiere recordings is clearly a virtuoso and excellent guide in this arcane repertoire. Like the music of York Bowen and Nikolai Medtner, once scandalously neglected, Coke's day would surely come.   

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Decca 483 0201 / ****1/2

Long before American Idol, William Hung and Susan Boyle, there was Florence Foster Jenkins. The elderly and wealthy socialite captured the imagination of an entire nation by selling out Carnegie Hall in 1944 despite having the unenviable reputation of being the “world's worst singer”. 

The word “despite” might easily be replaced by “because of” as her legendary badness was genuinely entertaining, as portrayed in the Steven Frears directed movie that bears her name. There are no FFJ original tracks (she recorded several with Melotone) in the original soundtrack, but the multiple Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep hits execrable heights with true gusto, partnered by Simon Hellberg's piano who plays the original accompanist Cosme McMoon. 

As if to illustrate the gulf between hubristic ambition and actual insight, there are two tracks of Delibes' Bell Song from Lakme, first sung by coloratura soprano Aida Garifullina (who played Lily Pons in the movie) followed by Streep's classic FFJ. The original music by Alexandre Desplat conducting the London Metropolitan Orchestra captures the big band sound of 1930s and 40s America. 

For pure escapism, Streep's approximations of Johann Strauss's Adele's Laughing Song (Die Fledermaus), McMoon's Like A Bird and Valse Caressante, and Mozart's Queen Of The Night Aria (The Magic Flute) will have one in stitches. But spare a thought for the neighbours, so keep the volume down.  

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