Thursday 15 January 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, January 2015)

Decca 478 6772 (2 CDs) / *****

Until recently, Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire had flown under the radar, admired by cultists and cognoscenti but relatively unnoticed by the musical mainstream. His award-winning recordings for Decca in the past decade have firmly and deservedly placed him in the spotlight. These recordings of radio broadcasts from Germany, France and Holland during the 1960s and 70s reveal a fiery virtuoso whose light has never dimmed over the years. The repertoire here reminds one of his close friend and regular two-piano partner Martha Argerich, and he yields nothing to the tempestuous Argentine.

His view of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto is passionate, and sparks fly in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Note also that he used the same rolled chord employed by Horowitz (not notated in the score) at the climax of the finale to thrilling effect. A rarity is Schumann’s Introduction and Allegro Op.134, a late work that had some influence on the young Brahms. Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto did not figure much in his concerts but his sympathy and trenchant response were never in doubt. There is an inexorable and magisterial sweep to Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto while no punches are pulled for Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, where he is found at the peak of his prowess. This is a truly worthy release in celebration of Freire’s 70th birthday. 

BBC Scottish Symphony
Decca 478 6690 / ****1/2

After exploring her Italian roots in the well-received album Italia, former BBC Young Musician of the Year winner Nicola Benedetti has now turned to the musical traditions of the land of her birth, Scotland. The obvious starting point was German composer Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, which quotes a number of Scottish folksongs and embellished in orchestral finery. She gives a sumptuous performance of its four movements, equal to the best readings in the catalogue, and is well supported by the BBC Scottish Symphony conducted by Rory McDonald.

The balance of the album has a crossover element which is just as interesting, including colourful settings of songs by Robert Burns, James Scott Skinner and contemporary folk composer Phil Cunningham. Burns is represented by the love songs Ae Fond Kiss, My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose and Auld Lang Syne, the last being in the form of variations for solo violin. Benedetti has a tone that is long-breathed and sonorous, yet is capable of the frenetic folk fiddling to be found in Scottish jigs and reels, when she collaborates with folk musicians.

Almost stealing the show is Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis whose tongue-twisting agility in the Mouth Music And Tunes Set and the traditional song Coisich A Ruin (Walk, My Beloved) has to be heard to be believed. The disc closes with Bonnie Banks Of Loch Lomond, in a reading that truly stirs the heart. A very enjoyable 76 minutes, even if you are not a Scot.     

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