CD Reviews (The Straits Times, May 2012)

BAX Winter Legends / Morning Song
ASHLEY WASS, Piano
Bournemouth Symphony / James Judd
Naxos 8.572597 / ****1/2

The British composer Arnold Bax (1883-1953) is best known for his seven symphonies and symphonic poems on Celtic lore and legends. This recording presents three concertante works for piano and orchestra, all premiered by his lover and muse Harriet Cohen. At 38 minutes, Winter Legends (1929-30) is a three-movement symphony with a virtuoso piano part employed with orchestral textures in mind. It is a highly evocative score using folk-like themes, both Romantic in spirit yet coloured with broad impressionist sweeps. The ruggedness of Sibelius’s tone poems is recalled albeit with an aromatic Celtic flavour.

Cut from the same fabric is the compact Saga Fragment (1933), an orchestrated movement from an earlier piano quartet. The percussive and hard-hitting 10 minutes was admired by no less than Bartok himself. Far more congenial is Morning Song (1947), carrying the subtitle Maytime In Sussex, which wallows unabashedly in the English pastoral tradition. For some years, this was regularly used in on-air commercials by Symphony 92.4 FM. Prize-winning pianist Ashley Wass has become Naxoslabel’s in-house pianist for English piano music, and the quality of this release confirms his prowess and obvious sympathies. This is ardently recommended listening.    



RED PIANO
YUNDI, Piano
EMI Classics 4394320 (CD and DVD) / ****1/2

The social history of the piano in contemporary China makes a fascinating topic for a doctoral thesis. Li Yundi’s latest album Red Piano, released to coincide with the Chinese republic’s centenary, qualifies to be its Exhibit A. The piano, with its wide range of colours and textures including percussive and orchestral effects, is an ideal vehicle for transcriptions of Chinese music. The best known are oldies such as Liu Yang River, Colourful Clouds Chasing The Moon and Five Yunnan Folksongs, in Wang Jianzhong’s highly idiomatic arrangements. Romantic and impressionist writing simulating traditional Chinese instruments are the norm, as is the Bartokian treatment of folk songs and dances. All these come to a heady fruition in Zhang Zhao’s Pi Huang (Beijing Opera), a virtuoso showpiece dedicated to Li Yundi.

Patriotic music, particularly the overtly Socialist kind, still makes popular subjects. Zhang Zhou’s transcriptions of Liu Chi’s My Motherland and Nie Er’s March Of The Volunteers (the Chinese National Anthem), the latter in the style a Chopinesque polonaise, are both over-the-top and floridly jingoistic. Then there is the Yellow River Concerto by a Beijing committee of four based on themes from Xian Xinghai’s Yellow River Cantata, composed in 1939 as an anti-Japanese war effort. Despite being derivative (it is the Chinese counterpart to Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto), the highly effective showpiece sounds spectacular in the hands of Yundi and the National Centre for Performing Arts Orchestra conducted by Chen Zuohuang. The accompanying DVD includes a short documentary in Mandarin and two tracks performed on a blood red (really!) Steinway grand. Yundi diehards need not hesitate.