June 18, 2009


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3. François-Frédéric Guy, piano; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Philippe Jordan. Naïve. $16.99.

Khachaturian: Violin Concerto; Concerto-Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra. Nicolas Koeckert, violin; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Naxos. $8.99.

Copland: Clarinet Concerto; William Thomas McKinley: Clarinet Duet Book II; Concerto for Two Clarinets and Orchestra. Kim Ellis and Richard Stoltzman, clarinets; Slovak National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. Navona. $16.99.

Joseph Bertolozzi: Bridge Music. Delos. $12.99.

     François-Frédéric Guy and Philippe Jordan have completed their cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos with a third CD on which they take some risks, and some liberties, with tempo and balance; and this time, for the most part, the risks pay off. No. 2, actually the first of the five numbered concertos that Beethoven wrote (in addition to an early E-flat concerto and a piano arrangement of the Violin Concerto), is not quite as light and fleet here as it can be, but it bubbles along pleasantly, and some of the orchestral touches – notably the strings in the Adagio – nicely complement Guy’s piano, highlighting elements of the accompaniment that are not always brought through clearly. No. 3 has sounded both darker and more magisterial in other recordings than it does here, and some of the balance emphases try too hard to be unusual (such as the timpani just before the end of the finale). But this is a generally subtle and well-integrated performance in which the music flows naturally and the back-and-forth between C minor (the work’s nominal key) and C major is handled fluently. Guy and Jordan deserve credit for taking a fresh look at these standards of the repertoire, and even if not all their approaches prove effective, their CD is very much worth hearing for its attempt to rethink the concertos without being in any way false to their composer or the time in which they were written.

     Nicolas Koeckert’s excellent playing in Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto is the main attraction of his new CD with José Serebrier and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This is a passionate and warm reading of the concerto, especially strong in the first two movements. Where Koeckert and Serebrier take the most chances is in the finale, which they handle more soberly and with less freewheeling virtuosity than it usually receives. This lends weight to the concerto as a whole, but it prevents the final movement from feeling like a joyous release after the somewhat heavier material that has gone before (although this is scarcely a profound concerto). This is a well-thought-out interpretation even if not a wholly convincing one. As for the Concerto-Rhapsody, which is long enough to be a concerto of its own, it comes across rather less well. Khachaturian wrote three works with this title, one each for violin, cello and piano, and intended them to be mixtures of subtle emotionality and brilliant display. The brilliance is missing in most of Koeckert’s performance, though – not because he lacks the technical ability but because he seems to be holding it in check in order to bring forth the work’s long lines and rather surface-level feelings. As a result, the Concerto-Rhapsody often seems to drag, not because of tempo but because it wades through so much emotion. This is a valid approach to the work but not, in the end, as effective as one in which the brighter and dimmer sections are contrasted more strongly.

     Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, a staple of 20th-century clarinet repertoire, gets a fine performance from Kim Ellis, principal clarinetist of the Symphony of Southeast Texas, with a particularly strong first movement in which the lyrical elements of jazz – effectively communicated by the composer despite the lack of percussion – come through with particular sensitivity. Ellis also does quite well with the jazz elements contained in the cadenza that links the concerto’s two movements – she says she loves this music, and her affection shines through. Ellis, along with fellow clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, also shows an affinity for jazz in the two dual-clarinet works of William Thomas McKinley on this CD. McKinley is an accomplished jazz pianist as well as a composer, and he has written three solo-clarinet concertos as well as a clarinet sonata. He has worked and recorded with Stoltzman before, and Ellis says it was McKinley who suggested that she and Stoltzman work together on this CD. What matters, though, is the music; and although Ellis and Stoltzman take something of a risk in weighting this CD toward McKinley rather than the better-known Copland (who was McKinley’s teacher at Tanglewood), the approach pays off handsomely. McKinley, now 70, retains a healthy dose of youthful exuberance in the two works here, but there is also considerable tenderness and a call for substantial clarinet virtuosity. The six-movement Clarinet Duet Book II features fascinating intertwining of the instruments, while the two-clarinet concerto (which has a rather off-kilter waltz rather than a traditional slow movement at its center) showcases brightness more than deep emotion.

     It is hard to say what sort of emotion Joseph Bertolozzi wants to evoke in his Bridge Music, which is essentially a concerto for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Mid-Hudson Bridge that crosses the Hudson River between Poughkeepsie and Highland, New York. What Bertolozzi does is look at the bridge as a huge musical instrument, then use parts of it to create sounds that he arranges into a 10-movement suite: “Bridge Funk,” “The River That Flows Both Ways,” “Steel Works” and “Rivet Gun” are among the movements’ titles. As it happens, the bridge’s designer, Ralph Modjeski, was a pianist and classmate of Ignacy Jan Paderewski before he became an engineer, so this bridge actually has a musical connection. But whether this work succeeds as music – or as any sort of art – is debatable, and will no doubt be debated. Bertolozzi, who was born in Poughkeepsie 50 years ago, apparently has an emotional attachment to this bridge, but whether Bridge Music is ultimately more than a gimmick will be a matter of opinion. Bertolozzi clearly approaches the bridge in a musical way – the CD includes s 10-minute audio tour of the structure’s various sounds – and there is enough seriousness to this project to earn it a (+++) rating. But as for what it is, aside from an attention-getter – that is something that listeners must decide for themselves.

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