Phoenix Story

Steven Ritter
Fanfare (US)

This has been an excellent year for the Rachmaninoff; just a few issues ago (31:6) I opined that Gautier Capuçon and Gabriela Montero offered one of the “fiercest and most exuberantly emotional readings of the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata that I have ever heard,” and that Kniazev and Lugansky on Warner Classics were equally sweeping in their emotional appeal. Such verbiage leaves little room for increases in any department, but here goes: Pei-Sian Ng (Australian-born and Commonwealth Musician of the Year in 2007) smokes the room with this feisty and torrential reading, eclipsing by a hair the aforementioned Capuçon and Montero offering on Virgin. Honestly, if it keeps getting better like this in future recordings, my playback equipment is very likely to catch fire. And how unexpected that a 25-year-old Chinese Aussie would be able to enter into Rachmaninoff’s hothouse world of Russian passion and pathos to this degree! Yet he does, and one can only guess what the future holds for him (and us) as he matures.

But it doesn’t end there; twin brother and cellist Pei-Jee shows his considerable stuff in the Chopin Sonata. This work, composed only three years before the composer’s death from tuberculosis, is strangely Classical and classically elegant without for one moment allowing us to enter into the torment he must have been experiencing from the intrigues of lover George Sand’s family that eventually ended in a split that almost certainly contributed to the onslaught of the final years of his illness. But here the noted miniaturist sustains a four-movement work of great lyricism and breadth, the last published piece he was to create, and a worthy conclusion to a great and noble career that brought a newer, more delicate and refined sense of piano-playing to an already overtly-calcified Romantic tradition. Pei-Jee has an even more pronounced and richly vibrant sound than his brother, and the resulting performance is stunningly successful.

As icing on this luxurious cake, we get a work by Elena Kats-Chernin on the subject of the phoenix, the mythical bird that arises from its own ashes. Though oriental/pentatonic in nature it is highly melodic, and the two-cello scoring makes for some wonderful opportunities to pit low open fifths and fourths against a very lyrical pentatonic melodic line. The movement titles are derived from the traditional Chinese symbols of the phoenix and the dragon, the latter representing the male and the former the female symbolizing blissful balance (ying and yang). The two contrasting movements ‘Tears from Above’ and ‘Courting the Dragon’ both work on ostinatos and are slightly minimalist in nature, though I do not want to overstate this. It is not an especially deep piece, but quite frankly by the end of this disc I couldn’t have stood much more passion, and the nice colors afforded by the two cellos make a nice foil for the other works here. Pianist David Tong partners with both brothers in an equally fine outing. This is an early Want List contender – let the games begin!