Sunday 15 May 2011

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, May 2011)

SCHUBERT Piano Duets
Hyperion 67665 / *****

Franz Schubert wrote a large volume of music for piano four hands, and for good reason too. Hausmusik, or domestic music making, was all the rage in Biedermayer Vienna and their publication represented a substantial source of income for the young little-known composer. Schubert was to die prematurely at the age of 31 before he received any widespread acclaim.

This anthology presents a delightful cross-section, including the greatest work of all – the Fantasy in F minor. This work alternates lilting reminiscence with martial pretensions, culminating in a double fugue. There are two sets of variations, the gentle Andantino Varie (from D.823) and the more extended Variations On An Original Theme (D.813), based on a rather banal march theme.

The balance comprise later works, a vigorous Allegro in A minor (D.947), given the dramatic title Storms Of Life posthumously by Schubert’s publisher Diabelli, and the mellow and surprisingly retiring Rondo in A major (D.951). Lewis and Osborne, two of Britain’s finest pianists, elicit perfect chemistry while alternating primo and secondo roles. Sequels to this marvellous collection are keenly anticipated.

EMI Classics 627890 2 (2 CDs)

Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) was the conservative Armenian composer who found great favour among the Soviets, largely through his colourful scores which combined ethnic folk themes and Central Asian music with mild dissonances. Some popular melodies, such as the Adagio (from the ballet Spartacus) and Sabre Dance (Gayaneh) have been appropriated and adapted for the cinema. The ballet excerpts have a rhythmic vitality matched by an exoticism that is well captured by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer shortly before his death.

His equally engaging concertos also have a naïve appeal. David Oistrakh is the peerless soloist in a 1954 recording of the folksy Violin Concerto with The Philharmonic Orchestra. Do not be misled by the cover as Brazilian pianist Cristina Ortiz does not perform the Piano Concerto but a few short pieces. Instead one gets the Romanian Mindru Katz, whose otherwise lively and idiomatic take from 1957 is dogged by ragged sound. Like Socialist Realist art itself, there is something chic about wallowing in this quite enjoyable Cold War musical fare.

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