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Old 25-08-17, 06:57 AM
Todd A Todd A is offline
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Join Date: Nov 2008
Posts: 608

A few years back, I spotted a complete set of Beethoven's Cello Sonatas on Universal Music China from cellist Li-Wei Qin and Albert Tiu, but I didn't jump on it. I found it again recently when looking for new artists to hear, and this time I decided to buy. Since the good folks at Momox Germany had a used set for next to nothing, it was a pain-free purchase. It was so pain-free that I decided to go ahead and finally pull the trigger on the Xavier Phillips and François-Frédéric Guy set on Evidence Classics so I could do an A/B.

Li-Wei Qin is a Chinese born cellist who spent some of his youth in Australia before going on to compete in various competitions and perform with various orchestras and chamber collaborators and taking some teaching positions, currently at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore. He's recorded some core rep for ABC Classics and some of the same stuff again for Decca China, along with other rep. His partner here is Albert Tiu, a Filipino pianist who studied at, among other places, Juilliard under Jerome Lowenthal. He's likewise done the competition and touring circuits, and like Qin, he ended up at YST Conservatory, which, not at all coincidentally, served as the recording venue for this first recorded collaboration of the two artists.

This A/B is the first one where both sets were ripped before performing any comparisons, and as such I was able to do a sonata to sonata matchup without ever having to get out of my easy chair. (If one must get up to change discs, that makes such a chair not as easy as it could be.) I started in on sonata number one and chose to listen to Qin and Tiu first. Qin's cello dominates, but it is not domineering. Rich and somewhat dark down low, and warm and lyrical up top, it offers both a nice contrast and compliment to Tiu's somewhat light and playful pianism. Really, Tiu's upper register playing at times verges on sounding too sweet, but the tradeoff is that when combined with Qin's never too heavy cello, the overall sound is decidedly classical in nature. Peppy and light, almost to a fault, the sonata brings a subdued grin to the listener's face. Phillips and FFG, recorded with more immediacy, play with more individuality and spontaneity. Obviously well versed in the music, the duo play off each other well and employ rubato, dramatic pauses, exiciting accelerandos, and myriad other little touches to create an almost concert feel to the recording. One gets the impression it would sound different on a different day. The playing retains a classical sensibility, but it is more boisterous, more exhuberant, and pushes right up against boundaries of the era. In Op 5, No 2, Qin and Tiu generate a touch more energy and more than a touch more grooviness, making for a most enjoyable second sonata. Phillips and Guy add a bit more drama to the proceedings, and their already impressive dynamic range becomes more so. While not at all saggy rhythmically, they do not quite sound as groovy as Qin/Tiu, though they sound more vibrant, and the Rondo-Allegro movement is just plain fun.

Qin opens Op 69 in a most lovely fashion, but when Tiu joins him, his playing ends up capturing more attention, but then the fun starts as the duo belt out the playing with more oomph than the two earlier sonatas, and Qin fairly makes his cello sing like a baritone delighted to be able to sing a lovely Ludwig van tune, and Tiu's right hand playing at the end of the first movement is just enthralling. As they move through the Scherzo and Adagio, they play well off each other, seamlessly transitioning back and forth, and sometimes blending flawlessly. Too, there are some occasions where Tiu, briefly and somehow discreetly, dominates things, but never to the detriment of the music. Then in the Allegro vivace, they play with great energy and drive. This would be most enjoyable to hear in person. Phillips/FFG offer more of everything: more energy, more dynamic and tempo contrasts, more emphatic accents, more more. From time to time, FFG belts out his part with heavy duty power, and Phillips' tone can take on a sharper edge than Qin's. They never overdo things, though they come close. It is entirely likely some might think they do. Qin and Tiu sound more poised (which is not to say staid!) whereas Phillips and FFG go for broke more often. It's nice to hear both approaches (and more).

In 102/1, Qin plays most lyrically and Tiu offers gentle lovely support in the opening Andante section, and then they play the Allegro vivace with poised martial potency. The Adagio contrasts Qin's deep, dark cello tone with Tiu's lighter pianism most effectively, and the Allegro vivace exhibits nice energy and forward drive, though its classical restraint might be a tad too restrained at times. It would be difficult to say that anything in the Phillips/Guy recording is too restrained. That's not to say that anything is over the top, but again, this duo offers more vibrance and tension in the faster and louder passages, and a touch more drama even in slower passages. It again sounds more spontaneous, more "live". Qin/Tiu do a slightly better job of evoking late Beethoven, but Phillips/Guy thrill more. It is not mere recreation, it is creation. In 102/2, Tiu starts off playfully and Qin veritably explodes into the soundstage, and the two vary dynamics and tempo most effectively, making for a most enjoyable opening movement. The Adagio sounds quite attractive, with Qin not afraid to use generous vibrato. I'm not sure it meets the molto sentimento d'affetto designation, but it might just be better that way. The duo shows that it is possible to make a fugue fun and playful in the final movement, too. In the Phillips/FFG, it's more FFG who explodes into the musical picture, setting the tone for a super-vibrant reading of the first movement, albeit one with even more pronounced dynamic and tempo flucuations. More of that more more thing. One can hear sentimentality in the slow movement, and the concluding fugue is more vibrant but perhaps less formally clear than Qin/Tiu. Again, the spontaneity of the Frenchmen win the day.

The Qin/Tiu set includes only the sonatas, whereas the Phillips/FFG set includes the variations, which I saved until after the A/Bs were done. Not surprisingly, the traits the duo display throughout the sonatas are also on display in the variations, and all the works make for a most enjoyable listen.

Both sets are most enjoyable, but the Phillips/FFG pairing is the more adventurous, more exicting, and more compelling of the two, and easily ranks alongside Perenyi/Schiff and Fournier/Kempff for me.* It's yet another triumph for FFG. I eagerly await his Beethoven Violin Sonatas and Piano Trios. I may have to try his earlier recording of these works with Gastinel now.

Not surprisingly, all of the artists in this shootout are quite talented. FFG is one of my favorite living piansts, and I already know to reflexively buy any new recording going forward. I may not buy new recordings by Phillips reflexively, but I will keep him in mind in other repertoire (his EMI Debut disc looks enticing), and when he records the LvB piano trios with FFG and Tedi Papavrami, I will buy without hesitation. Qin falls into this category, and his few recordings do hold some interest, particularly the Decca Dvorak. FFG obviously excluded, it is Albert Tiu that I'd like to hear more from most out of this group. He's got a few solo albums out, and the Scriabin/Chopin one looks tempting, but I really want to hear him in Mozart and Haydn, and probably Ravel. He's made it out Oregon way before, playing down in Eugene. The Oregon Bach Festival aside, that town is boring as hell if one doesn't like college sports, but I'll make the jaunt down there if he visits again.

Sound for both sets is at or near SOTA.

* I can't help but notice that three of the six musicians in my favorite sets are French, which is almost as gallocentric as my preferred sets of Violin Sonatas. Hmmm.

Amazon UK link for Qin/Tiu

Amazon UK link for FFG/Phillips
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