Hot Tracks: New albums by Tony Bennett, Nicholas McCarthy, Congyu Wang and Bizjak Piano Duo

Tony Bennett is better known as a belter. Composer Jerome Kern is best known for his sweetly lyrical ballads.

These two facts make The Silver Lining a bit of an awkward listen. Which is a pity because Kern's music is well-suited to the intimate trio setting of this album, a welcome change from Bennett's high-profile collaborations with Lady Gaga and other chart-topping youngsters.

Bennett's voice, crackly and raw, is ill-matched to the lilting notes of Kern's tunes.

  • JAZZ


    Tony Bennett with Bill Charlap

    Columbia Records

    4/5 stars

The opening track is a vivid demonstration of this. All The Things You Are is a classic love ballad. When Bennett keeps low and slow, he can get away with his approximation of a croon. However, the bare-bones accompaniment with just Bill Charlap's piano leaves him no cover. The 89-year-old's voice almost cracks on a couple of high notes.

The strain in his voice is a snag in the otherwise smooth setting of Charlap's trio, which include bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington.

But physical frailties aside, Bennett's canny showmanship saves him from the brink. The nuances of wistful nostalgia on The Last Time I Saw Paris and tender regard on Dearly Beloved are notes that can be struck only by a mature interpreter of song.

An old-fashioned songbook, if a bit battered, but still beloved.

Ong Sor Fern

Nicholas McCarthy, 26, who was born without a right hand, in 2012 became the first one-handed pianist to graduate from London's Royal College of Music. The Briton's debut solo recording of left-hand piano music begins unpromisingly with typically vacuous fare from Ludovico Einaudi and clunky operatic transcriptions.

However, there is an astonishing sequence of tracks that seals the deal: Frederic Meinders' transcription of Rachmaninov's Vocalise, Count Geza Zichy's transcription of Liszt's Third Liebestraume and two contrasting Chopin-Godowsky Etudes (Op. 10 No. 3 and Op.25 No. 12), the latter given a thunderous reading that proves his credentials.


  • SOLO

    Nicholas McCarthy, piano left hand

    Warner Classics 0825646052400

    4.5/5 stars

Then come three Scriabin pieces, the famous Nocturne In D Flat Major (Op. 9 No. 2) and two Etudes (the fearsome Op. 8 No. 12 with the melancholic Op. 2 No. 1).

Probably the greatest left-hand solo work is Felix Blumenfeld's Etude In A Flat Major, which gets a glorious performance. To wind down, two Gershwin songs (The Man I Love and Summertime) and Nigel Hess' Nocturne, specially commissioned by McCarthy, provides some lighter listening.

Judging by the simplistic entrylevel programme notes by the pianist himself, this album is clearly aimed at beginners, but seasoned pianophiles need not shy away.

Chang Tou Liang

The piano music of Frenchman Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) comes from a bygone era, filled with the song-like charm of the Belle Epoque and influenced by popular trends of the day in Gay Paree. His persona was both rascal and saint, displaying seemingly contradictory facets of his life: a bon vivant with a deep inner spirituality informed by his Roman Catholic faith.

This album brings together his most popular works for piano; the witty Trois Mouvements Perpetuels, with the quintessential characteristics which are further delved into in his Three Novelettes and Three Intermezzos.



    Poulenc piano music

    Wang Congyu, piano

    KNS Classical 040

    4.5/5 stars

Young Singaporean pianist Wang Congyu studied in Paris with Gabriel Tacchino, the composer's only formal student. His playing is elegant and refined, an excellent introduction to Poulenc's uniquely personal sound world.

The 15 Improvisations are delectable and include a waltz in homage to Schubert and a heartfelt homage to songstress Edith Piaf.

Poulenc's genuine gift of melody comes across most sympathetically in Melancolie, which at five minutes is his longest piano piece, and the chanson Les Chemins De L'Amour (The Paths Of Love). The latter was never notated, but improvised from the song itself.

Chang Tou Liang

The Serbian duo of Lidija and Sanja Bizjak make their first concerto recording with two 20th-century double piano concertos that look to the past for inspiration.

Think of J.S. Bach's concertos for two keyboards updated to the present and the Concerto For Two Pianos (1943) by Bohemian composer Bohuslav Martinu comes into view. Its busy play of counterpoint in the fast outer movements, fuelled by his upbeat and kinetic style, makes this a jolly listen.



    Stuttgart Philharmonic / Radoslaw Szulc

    Onyx Classics 4148

    5/5 stars

Its companion is the equally engaging Concerto For Two Pianos (1932) by Frenchman Francis Poulenc, where Mozart's sensibilities, Javanese gamelan and Gallic charm become equals in a quirky manner.

The fillers without orchestral backing are just as apt. Stravinsky's Sonata For Two Pianos (1943) is neoclassical in its conception with a droll theme and variations second movement as its centrepiece.

Shostakovich's single-movement Concertino (1954), composed for his teenaged son, combines mock-seriousness and genuine gaiety.

This seemingly unusual programme by the Bizjak sisters is a total charmer. Their digital brilliance is blessed with a lightness of touch and a generous dose of wit and humour.

Chang Tou Liang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2015, with the headline 'Hot Tracks'. Print Edition | Subscribe