sat 18/05/2024

Classical CDs Weekly, Sean Hickey, Lang Lang, Piers Lane | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly, Sean Hickey, Lang Lang, Piers Lane

Classical CDs Weekly, Sean Hickey, Lang Lang, Piers Lane

Contemporary American music, sizzling 20th century concertos and an enjoyable sequence of piano miniatures

Piers Lane Eric Richmond


Sean Hickey: Cello Concerto, Clarinet Concerto Dimitry Kouzov (cello), Alexander Fiterstein (clarinet), St Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Lande (Delos)

Sean Hickey’s 2007 Cello Concerto solves the problem of balancing soloist with orchestra by keeping the accompaniment spare and light. The brazenly tonal language can’t help recalling several well-known 20th century cello concertos - those by Walton and Shostakovich come to mind. Like them, Hickey enjoys unusual sound combinations – the concerto’s slow movement contains a beguiling, quirky duet for cello and bass clarinet, as well as an extended percussion-drenched cadenza. The composer’s admission that the percussion writing is a reference to civilian casualties in the Iraq war feels incongruous, especially when the outer movements are so breezy and inoffensive. Cellist Dmitry Kouzov sounds unfazed by the technical demands.

Hickey’s Clarinet Concerto is a more appealing listen. It’s well-proportioned – a work that leaves you wishing it was longer. There’s an overabundance of memorable ideas in the first movement, and the orchestral writing is deft and colourful. Clarinettist Alexander Fiterstein delivers liquid slurs across the instrument’s range. I was slightly baffled by the unexpected appearance of a folky reel which comes to dominate the last movement, yet somehow it all works – a good humoured, lyrical work, idiomatically scored.

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto no 3, Bartók: Piano Concerto no 2 Lang Lang, Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle (Sony)

I’ll stick my head above the parapet now and admit that I’ve a soft spot for Lang Lang. The vitriolic flack he attracts makes me like him even more. His detractors won’t be seen dead with this CD, which is a shame, as it’s pretty marvellous. How smart of Sony to have recorded him in repertoire which plays to his strengths. This Prokofiev 3 is exceptionally good – thunderous when it needs to be, and always rhythmically alert. And Sir Simon Rattle is a supremely effective partner, bringing out the seductive, fairy-tale magic in the orchestral writing. Has that opening clarinet solo ever sounded so seductive? The first movement’s quiet centre is very special; strings reduced to a luminous whisper, Lang Lang’s solo line shimmering in response.  The second movement’s quieter ruminations have real poetry, and the Hollywood moment in the finale is ecstatic. Of course, there’s plenty of loud, fast stuff too, and the concerto’s close is astonishing. Trust me. It’s splendid. I’ll retain a soft spot for my elderly Byron Janis LP, but fans of this work won’t be disappointed.

Bartók’s Piano Concerto no 2 makes for an unexpected, rewarding coupling. It’s a tougher listen than the Prokofiev, but stick with it –  the percussive violenceis tempered with humour and Bartók’s outer movement themes drip with muscular charm.  The opening Allegro sounds like an updated Brandenburg Concerto, each strand in brass and wind wonderfully clear. There’s plenty of mystery in Rattle’s handling of the slow movement’s spooky string chorales, and Lang Lang dazzles in the central Presto. Pay careful attention a few minutes before the concerto’s close, when there’s a dreamy, folk-tinged interlude. For a few moments, Lang Lang and Rattle hold us spellbound before an abrupt drum thwack and cascading brass fanfares bring us crashing back to earth. The ending is raucous and exultant. Nicely recorded too, and the bonus "making-of" DVD makes for entertaining viewing.

 

Piers Lane Goes to Town Piers Lane (piano) (Hyperion)

Good recital discs lead you gently by the hand into unexpected places. This one is a belter; Piers Lane’s exuberant Hyperion disc was originally intended to be a broad-ranging sequence of favourite encores, but ended up concentrating on 20th century repertoire. Lane’s joie de vivre is infectious in the more flamboyant pieces. He loves these pieces, and isn’t coy about telling us that we can, and should, love them too. Flamboyance and poetry are nicely balanced, and Lane attacks the cheesier numbers with such relish that resistance is futile. I’m thinking of the minute-long abbreviated version of Arthur Benjamin’s Jamaican Rumba which will necessitate an immediate second hearing, or Zez Confrey’s Dizzy Fingers – a piece which could be dumb and annoying, but is highly enjoyable in Lane’s hands. He’s dazzling too in Anthony Doheney’s Toccata for Piers Lane - a magnificent, cheery pastiche composed in 1999. The funniest item is a faithful transcription of Dudley Moore’s prosaically titled, well constructed Beethoven Parody , highly effective despite the absence of a live audience.

Poulenc’s foggy nocturne Bal fantôme is delectable, lasting less than two minutes. Rachmaninov’s Daisies is a sublime miniature. Katharine Parker’s Down Longford Way sounds just like a ripe Percy Grainger transcription – unsurprising, as Parker was mentored by Grainger, whose transcription of the Londonderry Air closes the disc. Mark Saya’s Barcarolles cheekily recycles bits of Offenbach, and there’s a nicely laid-back account of Billy Mayerl’s Marigold. Lane makes everything sound so easy, and his sleeve notes make fascinating reading.

Watch Dudley Moore play his Beethoven spoof

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