Wednesday 26 October 2016

CD REVIEWS (The Straits Times, October 2016)

BACH Piano Works
Decca 478 8449 / *****

The music of Bach has not featured in the recordings of Brazilian piano virtuoso Nelson Freire, until now. That is a surprise given how well attuned he is to the baroque idiom. 

It might be argued that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) never conceived his keyboard music for the modern piano, but if one considers these works to be transcriptions, Freire's view of Bach originals and hyphenated Bach (other composers' arrangements) can rank with the very best.

Four major works – Partita No.4 in D major, Toccata in C minor, English Suite No.3 in G minor and the Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue – are played first on this album, illustrating his utter clarity, immaculate phrasing and total command of counterpoint and infectious dance rhythms. There is a joie de vivre which he makes entirely his own. 

Bach's own transcription of Alessandro Marcello's Adagio (from the Oboe Concerto in D minor) and transcriptions by Busoni (of three Chorale Preludes) and Siloti (Prelude in G minor) are elegant and sound freshly minted. He concludes with the familiar Myra Hess version of Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring, a seamless reading that caps a totally enthralling recital, all 82 minutes of it.

Champs Hill 114 / *****

This anthology is a showcase of the solo violin’s “brave new world”, and it is not as forbidding as one might think. Its title comes from Sofia Gubaidulina's Dancer On A Tightrope (1993) for violin and piano, which opens with a repetition of the A note and builds up into a formidable caprice. Like a stuntman's balancing act on a high wire, it is a hair-raising experience for the listener.

The idea of polyphony on a violin began in the baroque era with Biber and Bach, and modern composers developed further ideas from there. Grazyna Bacewicz's thorny Sonata No.2 (1958) is such a work, and so is Paul Hindemith's fairly accessible Sonata Op.34 No.2 (1924), which culminates in variations on a song that also appears in Mozart's Piano Concerto No.27.

Prokofiev's Sonata Op.115 (1947) is the disc's most approachable piece, a tuneful neoclassical look back on old dances, meant to develop a violin student's technique. Likewise, Alfred Schnittke's Fuga (1953), a student work discovered after his death, is a far cry from his atonal and polystylist style of mature years. 

Polish violinist Bartosz Woroch’s highly impressive technique is ultimately servant to the music's digital and spiritual challenges. He is joined by Malaysian pianist Foo Mei Yi on prepared piano in John Cage Six Melodies (1950), short studies in Zen-like serenity. This is a stunning show of violin virtuosity, comparable with Gidon Kremer's legendary Paganiniana album from the 1980s.  

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