Wednesday, 22 February 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, February 2017)

Complete Music For Piano Duo
Massimiliano Damerini 
& Marco Rapetti, Piano
Brilliant Classics 94448 (3 CDs) / ****1/2

It may come as a surprise that the works for piano four hands by French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) amount to well over three hours of music. In this chronological survey dating from 1880 to 1915, one will discern his stylistic evolution from ambitious teenager to that of an established master. 

Some works will be familiar to general audiences, as the pretty Petite Suite (1886-89) for piano duet and the more modernistic En Blanc et Noir (1915), his last but greatest work for two pianos. And then there are the faithful but monochromatic transcriptions of orchestral favourites, Prelude to The Afternoon of the Fawn (1894) and La Mer (1905).

The music to be found in the first two discs is virtually unknown. There is a single-movement Symphony In B minor (1880), Diane Overture (1881), The Triumph of Bacchus Suite (1882), First Suite for Orchestra (1883) and Divertissement (1884), early works which were never orchestrated. These stylistically belong to the bygone French Belle Epoque, and hard to identify as classic Debussy. 

With Printemps (1887), Marche Ecossaise (Scottish March, 1891) and the Spanish-flavoured Lindaraja (1901), his more distinct voice begins to emerge. The Italian duo of Damerini & Rapetti give sympathetic and best possible accounts of the obscure pieces, and the performances more than satisfy the appetite for undiscovered semi-precious gems.   

Monday, 20 February 2017

THE MOZARTEAN EXPERIENCE 2017 / ADDO Chamber Orchestra / Review

ADDO Chamber Orchestra
Esplanade Recital Studio
Friday (17 February 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 February 2017

The ADDO Chamber Orchestra's Mozartean Experience was a sequel to last year's successful concert which had the flavour of a “show and tell” class. A programme sheet given to the audience was designed like a tabloid daily, but the surprise came in lieu of traditional programme notes.

Seconds before conductor Clarence Tan gave his first down-beat, a bewigged blonde dressed in period costume gatecrashed the proceedings. It was Constanze Weber, widow of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who had travelled through time from 1791 to address a 21st century Singaporean audience on the great Austrian composer's lives and times. Italian singer-actress Sabrina Zuber played such an irrepressible host with her comedic asides that she almost stole the show.

It was the music, however, which prevailed. First up was Antonio Salieri's short Sinfonia Veneziana, which the orchestra warmed up to with some degree of tentativeness. The ensemble comprising just 11 string players backed up by four wind players initially produced a raw and dry sound, but this soon improved in a hurry.

Constanze refuted the notion that Salieri was Mozart's rival and mortal enemy. Instead they were supportive colleagues with a common vision of making good music. As posterity had it, Mozart was gifted with more memorable tunes, like those in his Third and Fourth Horn Concertos, both in the key of E flat major.

Also introduced was Mozart's horn-playing friend Joseph Leutgeb, whose daytime job was that of a cheese-monger. Returning as soloist from the last Mozartean experience was young French hornist Alan Kartik Jairamin from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, who followed up his helpful demonstration of basic horn techniques with confident showings of both works.

He brought out a warm, burnished sound that highlighted the music's lyricism, and then went all virtuoso mode for the cadenzas. His reading of the better-known Fourth Concerto with its hunting romp of a finale proved a big hit with the audience, which lapped up his every turn and phrase.

To complete the evening's E flat major fare was the Symphony No.84 by Joseph Haydn, one of Mozart's teachers and the mentor who predicted his future greatness. The orchestra which had accompanied the horn concertos very well continued their good work under conductor Tan, now sporting a powdered wig (a la the movie Amadeus).

Jokes aside, this was a very credible performance of a rarely heard work. Its solemn opening soon gave way to an Allegro which bubbled ever so animatedly, fully conveying the humour typical of the composer. The slow movement was taken a a goodly pace, followed by a somewhat ungainly Scherzo and Trio, tinged with an infectious rusticity. Although the finale started with a hint of unsteadiness, this was smoothened out with a mercurial run to an exciting close.

For its next concert on 31 May, ADDO Chamber Orchestra turns its sights on another composing great – Ludwig van Beethoven.

Friday, 17 February 2017

DO NOT MISS: Singapore Debut Recital by Eminent Brazilian Pianist CRISTINA ORTIZ



Programme includes:

RAVEL Sonatine
CHOPIN Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58
BEETHOVEN Sonata in C sharp minor
  Op.27 No.2 "Moonlight"
VILLA-LOBOS A Lenda Do Caboclo
   Valsa da Dor, Festa no Sertao

Victoria Concert Hall at 7.30 pm
Sunday, 26 February 2017 
Tickets available at SISTIC

Cristina Ortiz is one of the most prominent of Brazilian pianists today. Winner of the 1969 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition as a teenager, she has gone on to play with the world's great orchestra and made many excellent recordings on the EMI, Decca, Collins Classics and Naxos labels. Her specialities are works of Romantic composers and the music of her homeland Brazil, particularly the piano pieces of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Do not miss this rare recital presented by Christine N Concerts.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

CD Review (February 2017)

RCA Red Seal  88985321742 (60 CDs) / ****1/2

The third collector's edition box-set of RCA Red Seal Living Stereo recordings dates from 1956 to 1966, and focuses mostly on solo recitals, chamber and choral music. 

With all the “big names” accounted for in the two preceding volumes, this 60-disc set highlights the debuts and early recordings of “rising names” including Bolivia-born violinist Jaime Laredo, American coloratura soprano Roberta Peters, the Juilliard Quartet, and late legends like American violinist Erick Friedman (a Heifetz student) and Poland-born pianist Andre Tchaikovsky. The listener is also introduced to French-Canadian violinist Liliane Garnier whose solo recital is a revelation.

Older and established names like violinist Henryk Szeryng, cellist Antonio Janigro, pianist Alexander Brailowsky, soprano Birgit Nilsson are also represented at the heights of their careers. With the thaw of Soviet-American relations, Russian greats Leonid Kogan, Galina Vishnevskaya and Daniil Shafran were also being recorded for their first times in the West. 

Not to be forgotten are two discs by the piano duo of Victor Babin and Vitya Vronsky in mostly Russian repertoire (their take on Rachmaninov’s two Suites is unforgettable), and the generically-named Festival Quartet (led by violinist Szymon Goldberg and includes violist William Primrise) in piano quartets by Brahms and Schumann.

Most of the discs play for about 40 minutes, corresponding to LPs of the day, but quality of performances rather than quantity is the key. The remastered sound is also more than acceptable for many hours of pleasurable listening.

Monday, 13 February 2017

WUXIA / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts
Esplanade Concert Hall
Satuday (11 February 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 February 2017 with the title "A trip down memory lane for wuxia fans".

Film music was on the table for the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's contribution to this year's Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts organised by Esplanade. Conducted by Music Director Yeh Tsung, the orchestra delivered a huge dose of nostalgia to the mostly middle-aged audience that filled the hall to its rafters.

For many, the genre of Chinese period dramas with sword-fighting, kungfu postures and gravity-defying leaps came from the 1960s through early 80s, typically churned out in Hong Kong film studios. The celebration of this legacy began with Medley Of Television Dramas by the then-ubiquitous Joseph Koo, with the view of Victoria Harbour by night serving as a backdrop.

The familiar melodies rolled off easily, graced by short but pretty solos by Zhao Jian Hua (erhu) and Li Bao Shun (gaohu), but does the well-known Shanghai Beach from The Bund (one of Koo's most memorable themes) belong to this group?

More contemporary was the erhu concerto drawn from Tan Dun's Academy Award winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon score for the movie starring Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh. SCO member Tan Man Man was the elegant and sensitive soloist, but her reticence in exerting herself meant she was more often than not overwhelmed by the large looming orchestral forces.

Receiving a World Premiere was Hong Kong-based Lincoln Lo and former SCO Composer-in-Residence Law Wai Lun's score accompanying sword-fighting scenes from the 1967 classic wuxia movie One Armed Swordsman. The appearance of the iconic Shaw Brothers logo drew recognition and laughter from the audience, and the saga about chivalry, adversity, revenge and redemption got underway.

The music, with vigorous rhythms and lyricism backing sequences of action and romance, blended seamlessly with the happenings on screen, surprisingly violent (for the 1960s) for including severed arms and spilling of laughably fake blood. The audience was clearly enthused by their collective memories being jolted, and a final return of that Shaw Brothers icon.

Special guest of the evening was Hong Kong singer Johnny Yip, very popular in the 1970s, now in his seventies. He sang six songs including James Wong's Laughter From The Vast Sea, Michael Lai's Imperial Heroes and The Legendary Hero Fok, and three more by Joseph Koo. Clearly his amplified crooner's voice has seen better days, but his glittery silver-scaled and tinselled suits, and easy-going personality indicated he was still up for the job.

Besides singing in Cantonese, he also chatted effably in dialect with conductor Yeh and the audience, much to their approval. Proponents of the Speak Mandarin Campaign will voice their protest, but his authentic and sterling efforts were an exercise reclaiming a certain heritage, in turning back the clock and bringing back the old and beloved.   

As the audience clapped along to the encore, Yip singing Koo's Sweeping Through The Mountains And Rivers, there was a palpable feeling of belonging, and that all things were good again.

Photographs by Jack Yam, courtesy of Esplanade Theatres By The Bay.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, February 2017)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
PINCHAS ZUKERMAN, Violin & Conductor
Decca 478 9386 / *****

Lovers of string music should not miss this excellent album which brings together the best-loved string works of two English masters, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and Edward Elgar (1857-1934). 

American violinist Pinchas Zukerman plays the role of both soloist and conductor. His svelte and sweet tone is best heard in Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending, a single-movement violin concerto all but in name. Its use of modal themes relives the hallowed tradition of English folk music, continuing into the Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis, where three string choirs are employed to resonant effect. Here is a cathedral of sound, and a nod to the great English choral tradition.

Elgar is represented by his ubiquitous Salut D'Amour, once again with Zukerman doing the honours. The strings players of the London-based Royal Philharmonic are excellent in the three-movement Serenade For Strings, and shorter pieces Chanson De Matin, Chanson De Nuit and In Moonlight (with Zukerman now on viola), extracted from the tone poem In The South

This splendid album is completed by the virtuosic Introduction and Allegro, which highlights a string quartet amid a full body of strings. A feast of glorious strings beckons.   

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

NG PEI-SIAN AND NG PEI-JEE / Victoria Concert Hall Presents / Review

VCH Presents Series
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (3 February 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 February 2017 with the title "Lively performance by twin brothers".

A full-house audience packed Victoria Concert Hall on a drizzly evening to witness a rare recital for two cellos, by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's Principal Cellist Ng Pei-Sian and his identical twin Pei-Jee.

The brothers were born in Sydney, shared the same teachers and schools in Australia and United Kingdom, and won numerous prizes before their individual careers diverged. Presently, the elder sib Pei-Jee is Co-Principal at the London Philharmonic Orchestra and member of the Fournier Trio.

Beginning with French baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Barriere's Sonata in G major, the chemistry was as immediate as expected. Their voices blended as one, interchanging roles of playing melody and providing accompaniment as freely as breathing air. Although the work was brief, with a short central aria and swift finale with rapidly repeated notes, their breezy way with the music served as the perfect prelude.

Slightly more complex was Handel's Trio Sonata in G minor, its alternating slow and fast 4-movement form with Shane Thio on harpsichord. Their interplay with give-and-take in the busy counterpoint of the fast movements was exemplary, with a show of deeper emotions in the slower preceding movements.

On either side of Handel were two unaccompanied Cello Suites by J.S.Bach. The programme booklet did not indicate who was to perform which work, and perhaps this was deliberate. As it turned out, Pei-Sian (above) – the slightly more flamboyant of the two – was assigned the Second Suite in D minor, opening with darker and more elegiac tones. Pei-Jee (below) played the cheerier and more familiar Third Suite in C major.

There was little to separate both cellists, bringing out gorgeous sonorities from their instruments besides displaying perfect articulation in the fast dance movements. Like a mirror image, both Sarabandes of both suites were hewn with burnished and deeply-breathed strokes. Pei-Sian had Menuets and his brother BourrĂ©es to “dance” to, but both finished off with fast rhythmic Gigues which were breathtaking to say the least.

The final piece was a total departure from the baroque, but nonetheless required similar razor-sharp reflexes and tricky coordination as the earlier works. Upping the ante was Uzbek-Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin's Phoenix Story, composed for the duo's 2007 concert tour of the Australian continent.

The dirge-like 1st movement Tears From Above opened with drone-like ostinatos from Pei-Jee over which Pei-Sian's melody unfolded with no little lyricism. The two later switched roles, and earlier contemplation gave way to an ever-rising emotional intensity. The fast 2nd movement, Courting The Dragon, was a fire-breathing and boisterous dance that worked its way to a thrilling end.

Having had little or no time to practise a duo encore, it was left for Pei-Sian to offer Bach's Prelude in G (from the First Cello Suite) while his brother gamely watched on. No matter, the audience was loud and vociferous in their ovation.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, February 2017)

STRAVINSKY The Rite Of Spring
Alpha Omega Sound 14-01-12 / *****

This is a live recording of a concert held in Hong Kong's City Hall Concert Hall on 17 October 2013 to commemorate the centenary of Igor Stravinsky's epoch-making The Rite Of Spring, which premiered to a famous riot in Paris. Receiving its first Asian performance (and now World Premiere recording) was an unusual transcription of the ballet for 2 pianos and 2 cellos by Italian pianist-conductor Giuseppe Andaloro.

Adapted from the orchestral score rather than the four-hands piano version, there is a symphonic scope to its conception. Giovanni Sollima's cello replaces the famous bassoon solo with an other-wordly quality to its timbre. The cellos produce a wiry tone and are also employed percussively, thus extending the range of sonorities on the pianos. This vivid performance truly brings out the music’s virility and savage intensity.

Also employed for the same forces is Andaloro's arrangement of Ravel's La Valse, a sweeping performance contrasted with the languid and atmospheric stillness to Sollima's transcription of Debussy's Prelude To The Afternoon Of The Fawn for just 2 cellos. The memorable programme is completed by Lutoslawski's witty Paganini Variations for two pianos. 20Th century music has never sounding this engaging or enticing.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, January 2017)

F.X.MOZART Piano Concertos Nos.1 & 2
CLEMENTI Piano Concerto
Sinfonieorchester St Gallen
Hyperion 68126 / ****

Franz Xaver Mozart (1791-1844) was the second son of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was just four months old when his father died. Interestingly, he was a student of Antonio Salieri (Mozart senior's supposed rival) and Johann Hummel, himself a student and boarder who lived in the same household. F.X.Mozart's two piano concertos are chips from the old block, continuing in his father's classical style of piano and orchestral writing without further developing the genre.

Piano Concerto No.1 in C major (1809) recaps Amadeus' martial air of the C major concertos (Nos.21 and 25) and syncopated tension in the opening tutti of the D minor concerto (No.20). By the time Piano Concerto No.2 in E flat major (1818) came about, Beethoven's more vigorous and highly expressive concertos had already turned the tide of music, ushering in the age of Romanticism.

The Italian Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) was a contemporary and rival of the father, upon who no little scorn and sarcasm was poured. Even his only Piano Concerto in C major (1896) sounds modern by comparison and may be passed off as proto-Beethoven. He, rather than Franz Xaver, was perhaps the true link between the masters Mozart and Beethoven. 

Trust the ever-enterprising British pianist-conductor Howard Shelley to breathe urgency and vitality into these little-known works, which are pleasant and worth listening if not life-changing. 

Monday, 23 January 2017

WEST SIDE STORY / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (21 January 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 January 2017 with the title "Exhilarating Americana ride".

Just one day after the inauguration of a new American president, there was a Stars and Stripes theme to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's concert led by Associate Conductor Joshua Tan. Even the Singaporean composer Zechariah Goh's Blossoms, receiving its World Premiere, was American-influenced. An alumnus of the University of Kansas, his two-movement work supposedly followed the progress of the national orchestra from its inception to present prominence.

Odyssey, its impressionist first part introduced a two-note motif with the interval of a falling minor third, and there was an extended cello solo from Principal Ng Pei-Sian serving as development. This was followed by the fast-paced Ecstasy, using an inversion of the earlier motif as a kind of retort. Its jazzy dynamism, with flying pizzicatos and a riff-like clarinet solo from Li Xin, was reminiscent of Bernstein but tinged with a local flavour.

An outstanding stand-alone piece, it also dovetailed perfectly into the general programme. What followed was John Adams' Violin Concerto (1993) with Singaporean violinist Kam Ning as the exuberant soloist. Coincidentally, the first two notes of her entry were almost identical to the two-note motif of the preceding work. According to Goh, it was a case of pure serendipity, and the path soon diverged with Kam's extremely taxing solo part taking off into a different orbit.

Almost improvisatory in feel, her violin soared above the fast chugging built upon a rhythmic ostinato, and this ever-evolving notion of recreating variations continued into the central slow movement's Chaconne entitled Body Through Which The Dream Flows. How she sustained interest through its langorous and somnolent path was a feat, which meant in compensation the final Toccare had to be a hell-for-leather romp.

Supported by scintillating strings, hyperactive electronic keyboards and a timpanist working overtime, its feverish pace trumped everything that had come before for a fast and furious finish. It was more Americana for Kam's encore, where she was thrillingly partnered by cellist Ng in Edgar Meyer's bluegrass hit Limerock.

The second half belonged to Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, which was conducted by Tan from memory. This score orchestrated by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal includes most of the musical's dance numbers and some songs but not performed in sequence. As with much of the earlier music, the audience was brought on an enthralling ride, which included the snapping of fingers, a police whistle, the obligatory fugue and in the rumbling Mambo, two shouts of “Mambo!”.

Hitherto lukewarm in previous attempts, the orchestra did put more effort this time in its vocalisations. It would be in the songs Somewhere and I Have A Love, now wordless, where the music itself would have the greatest traction.

The concert had a neat built-in encore, Adams' Short Ride In A Fast Machine, an extended orchestral fanfare that luxuriated in his fast minimalism, building in pace and revving away to some distant checkered flag. It was all over in four minutes. Catch your breath, and be left in the dust to smell the fumes.