CD Reviews (The Straits Times, July 2012)

Deutsche Grammophon 479 0052 / *****

It’s been ages since Deutsche Grammophon devoted an entire new disc to piano encores. This privilege falls on the brilliant fingers of Chinese sensation Yuja Wang, who treats this as a concept album and fashion statement. Perhaps only her stylist knows why she is being clad in a flouncy red gown and sprouting black feathery wings from her back.

Her keyboard flight of fantasy in centred around two longish encores. Victor Staub’s transcription of Dukas’s The Sorceror’s Apprentice is virtually unknown, but is highly effective with Wang’s razor-keen reflexes. Horowitz’s conception of the Liszt transcription of Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre is much recorded, and Wang’s version is as thrilling as Horowitz’s own. The plausible links between both these pieces are Mickey Mouse cartoons and a surfeit of technical diablerie.

The other encores are grouped loosely as Rachmaninov Études-tableaux, Scriabin miniatures (Préludes, an Étude and Poem) and assorted delights. The best of the latter contrasts flowing lines (Gluck-Sgambati Melodyfrom Orpheus) with rhythmic exuberance (Albeniz’s Triana) and more piled-on virtuosity (Horowitz Carmen Variations and Strauss-Cziffra Tritsch-Tratsch Polka) with her own added flourishes. Whichever way one likes it, this anthology is a winner.

GOTTSCHALK Complete Solo Piano Music
Hyperion 44451/8 (8 CDs) / ****1/2

The first truly-American composer and piano virtuoso is widely acknowledged to be one Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), a Creole born in New Orleans, who studied and began his performing career in Europe. His large body of piano music, while consisting of a variable potpourri of Romantic excess and sentimentality, is important because of the adoption of Ibero-Latin, Afro-American and Caribbean styles and beats, which would go on to influence later generations of composers as diverse as Joplin, Lecuona, Milhaud, Villa-Lobos and Granados. The shorter dance pieces like The Banjo, Bamboula, Pasquinade, Manchega, Le Bananier and Souvenirs D’Andalousie, full of infectious rhythms and syncopations, are must-listens for his quintessential spirit and idioms.

The influence of Chopin may be discerned in swooning salon numbers as the posthumous Ballades, while the vulgar side of Liszt is all-pervasive in several opera transcriptions and meretricious variations on melodies like Carnival Of Venice and Home, Sweet Home. The worst potboilers are reserved for various fantasies on national anthems, among them Brazil, Portugal and the USA. The one that takes the cake is Union, a cacophonous jumble that mixes up Yankee Doodle, Hail Columbia and Star-Spangled Banner in a flag-waving musical train wreck. Despite all this, the 109 separate pieces in this collection are lovingly performed by British pianist Philip Martin, who revels in its languorous lyricism, scintillating fireworks and outward humour, warts and all.