CD Reviews (The Straits Times, April 2011)

VIVALDI The Four Seasons / JEFFREY BIEGEL, Piano / Naxos 8.570031 / ****

One hasn’t really lived until one has heard Antonio Vivaldi’s four most popular violin concertos, better known as The Four Seasons, performed on the piano. But seriously, American pianist Jeffrey Biegel’s transcription sounds surprisingly idiomatic because he turns each of the twelve movements into a miniature study in the manner of Scarlatti’s little keyboard sonatas. Nobody complains about Scarlatti on piano (as opposed to the original harpsichord) these days, so no opprobrium should be accorded this unusual venture.

The use of trills and grace notes, replicating effects on the violin to simulate bird calls, storms of nature, the rustle of fallen leaves et cetera, is skilfully employed and the end effect is charming even if one is not totally sold on the idea. The disc also includes two other short Vivaldi concertos (for lute and mandolin) in piano guise by Andrew Gentile, Performed with requisite lightness and zest by Biegel himself, the music also sounds like plentiful fun to play.

PIAZZOLLA Orchestral Works / Nashville Symphony / Giancarlo Guerrero / Naxos 8.572271 / ****1/2

The Argentine Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) is widely hailed as the man who elevated the erotic tango to lofty reaches of the concert hall. This disc of his more ambitious orchestral works, although strongly underpinned by the tango rhythm, reveal a more serious and substantive voice. The youthful Buenos Aires Symphony (1951) reveals a debt to his teacher Albert Ginastera, he of brazen dissonances and violent ostinatos. Daniel Binelli’s bandoneon (the Argentine folk accordion) has a cameo role, which becomes a brilliant full-blown solo in the Concerto Aconcagua. The tango comes to the fore, all sultry and hot-blooded.

Piazzolla studied with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, who urged him to follow his instincts, and he never looked back. Las Cuatro Estaciones Portenas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) has become one of his iconic works, thanks to Leonid Desynatnikov’s arrangement for violin and strings. Passages from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons are cleverly interpolated into the score, which finds the requisite heady response from young Chinese violinist Yang Tianwa. This is 80 minutes well spent.