New albums by R.chord Hsieh, Kurt Elling and more

R.chord Hsieh's new album: The Crazy Ones
R.chord Hsieh's new album: The Crazy Ones
Britten, barber piano concertos
Britten, barber piano concertos
Historical Classics
Historical Classics


    R.chord Hsieh

    Warner Music Taiwan

    3.5/5 stars

The Chinese title of the album is Don't Have To Pretend To Be Good and that is something that Taiwanese singer-songwriter R.chord Hsieh has never done.

Indeed, his tabloid fodder exploits - from his drug-taking and feud with rapper Soft Lipa, to him accusing showbusiness veterans of cheating young women - have overshadowed his music at times.

It is a pity because there is no question that Hsieh is talented. His debut album, Nothing But A Chord (2009), was fresh and inventive and the follow-up, So After I've Grown Up (2011), included the touching duet with Lala Hsu, Under The Willow Tree.

After four years in the musical wilderness, he is back with a new record, The Crazy Ones, on a new label, Warner Music.

True to form, he does not shy away from his complicated history and bad-boy persona.

Girl Do You Know pours sexual desire into a poppy number: "I want to kiss you all over/From head to feet, I want to eat you up in big bites."

The act of eating is less salacious in the bouncy duet Feel Good featuring Kimberley Chen as he professes: "I want to eat away your loneliness, your sorrows."

Some of the posturing comes across as bravado. At other times, he seems to be unabashedly personal and painfully honest.

Album closer Embracing Failure is a naked mea culpa: "I can't go back, can only go forward/All the regrets over my past mistakes are useless/I've already hurt the family and friends who love me."

It ends poignantly in Minnan: "I want to make my dreams anew, realise from this point/Live again and learn to cherish."

Self-knowledge is not a bad place to start.

Boon Chan


    Kurt Elling

    Concord Records

    3.5/5 stars

If there is one thing one cannot fault vocalist Kurt Elling for, it is his sense of adventure. His programme choices have always ranged far and wide. He has a magpie's restless, wide-ranging instinct.

This latest recalls 2011 whiplashinducing compilation The Gate, with its eclectic meandering from the Scottish folk Loch Tay Boat Song and the French torcher La Vie En Rose to U2's Where The Streets Have No Name.

Elling is more than capable of attacking each song with subtlety and musicality. Taken separately, Loch Tay Boat Song, for example, sheds its folkloric dressing in a stripped-down setting with light brushes and tinkling piano and becomes a plaintive, surprisingly contemporary, ballad.

La Vie En Rose gets an oozy, New York-y lounge makeover with Bacharachstyle strings that take it away from the classic Edith Piaf angst into lightly swoonsome territory instead.

While nothing can beat U2's original grit, Elling gives it the old college try with a silky, soul-jazz take.

There are some stand-out tracks: a buoyant duet with Sara Gazarek on Voce Ja Foi A Bahia, where the music is joyously carefree, and a take on Johannes Brahms' Nicht Wandle, Mein Licht (Liebeslieder Walzer Op. 52, No. 17), which segues from a straight delivery into a surprisingly tender jazzy ballad.

In the end, however, the album feels slightly schizophrenic rather than like a smoothly coherent whole, given the programming choice.

At least his 2012 The Brill Building Project was built around the conceit of New York's musical landmark, which held everything together. This album has no such unifying motif and suffers as a result.

Ong Sor Fern



    Elizabeth Joy Roe, piano

    London Symphony Orchestra

    Emil Tabakov

    Decca 478 8189

    4.5/5 stars

This is a most logical coupling, the only piano concertos by the most revered 20th-century composers of England and America, who happened to be close contemporaries and good friends. There were many parallels between Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and Samuel Barber (1910-1981), in terms of their shared love for vocal music, use of dissonance and lyricism in compositions and alternative lifestyles.

Britten's Piano Concerto (1938, revised in 1945) was a slick and bold work of a young man, while Barber's Piano Concerto (1960-1962) was born of maturity and experience. Both have loud and percussive pages, but are tempered with passages of song-like wistfulness. While Britten's strong suit was wit and humour, Barber drew on the extremes of violence and nostalgia.

The performances by Korean-American pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe, one half of the famous Anderson & Roe piano duo, are elegant, incisive and often insightful, even if the recorded sound possesses a softer edge than some of her rivals'.

Her pair of encores are well-chosen, contrasting Barber's Nocturne (Homage To John Field) with Britten's Night Piece (Notturno). This is wonderful programming coupled with the playing of trenchant brilliance.

Chang Tou Liang



    Idil Biret Archive 8.501402 (14 CDs)

    4.5/5 stars

The Turkish pianist Idil Biret, born in 1941, was a child prodigy and student of Nadia Boulanger, Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, the combined tutelage nurturing an artist of Catholic tastes, phenomenal versatility and uncommon technique.

This box set brings together all her LP recordings (on five different labels) from 1959 to 1986, including works by Chopin, Brahms and Schumann to the Second Viennese School and the avant-gardists.

Among the latter is Turkish-American composer Ilhan Mimaroglu's Session, an aleatoric work with pre-recorded taped sounds dedicated to Biret, of which a 1976 recording is the definitive performance and entity. The composer had expressly forbidden any further performances or recordings, even by Biret herself. Her command of other 20th century works by Berg, Webern, Boulez, Scriabin, Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Miaskovsky also has much to recommend.

Of the mainstream repertoire, Rachmaninov's Corelli Variations and Moments Musicaux, Brahms' Handel and Paganini Variations and Ravel's Gaspard De La Nuit reveal a virtuosity that has been underrated.

The best sound is to be found in Liszt's transcriptions of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth symphonies, where her command of orchestral sonorities on a single keyboard has to be heard to be believed.

Chang Tou Liang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2015, with the headline 'Hot Tracks'. Print Edition | Subscribe