November 12, 2009


Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 12: Piano Sonatas Nos.4, 8 (“Pathétique”) and 27. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

Schumann: Kinderszenen; Brahms: Paganini Variations. Claudio Arrau, piano. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Liszt: Organ Works, Volume 3. Martin Haselböck, organ. NCA. $24.99 (SACD).

     There are interesting contrasts between the interpretations of a distinguished pianist taught by some of the grand masters of the earlier 20th century – and those of one of those masters himself. The latest Idil Biret Archives issue – 12th in her Beethoven Edition and sixth in her cycle of the piano sonatas – includes recordings of Sonata No. 4 from 2002, No. 8 from 2006 and No. 27 from 2004. As in all her more-recent recordings appearing on the IBA label, Biret shows considerable sensitivity and lyricism in these readings, allowing herself rubato (but not to excess) while letting the structural underpinnings of the music come through clearly. The first two movements of No. 4, which are dark and brooding, come off particularly well here; the lighter third and fourth movements are a touch less impressive, as if Biret cannot quite let go of the solemnity of the earlier part of this sonata – but they are certainly well played. In the “Pathétique” (whose name, unlike those of several other famous Beethoven sonatas, was chosen by the composer himself), Biret plays for depth and drama throughout, but at the same time highlights the work’s careful structure (for instance, the compressed dynamics of the finale prior to the return of the first subject). Thus, she melds emotion to intellect – a common approach for her, and one that works particularly well here. It does not come across quite so well in Sonata No. 27, a proto-Romantic work in which Biret’s focus on control is insufficiently leavened by emotional expressiveness. This two-movement work is a difficult sonata to interpret and not an especially popular one with listeners. Biret handles it with skill and with sensitivity to, among other things, the first movement’s key changes and the second’s decorative flourishes; but it feels almost as if she dissects the music rather than allowing it a natural flow.

     Biret is a disciple of Alfred Corot and Wilhelm Kempff, not Claudio Arrau, but it is nevertheless interesting to contrast her Beethoven with Arrau’s 1974 recordings of Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Brahms’ Paganini Variations. Arrau is all suppleness and flow on Pentagon’s SACD re-release. The Schumann is comparatively easy to play, and some pianists tend to overwhelm it as a result. Not Arrau. He takes these small childhood scenes – remembrances, really, by a composer who wrote them when he was not yet 30 – and plays each with straightforward simplicity that nevertheless hints at subtleties just beneath the surface. Arrau makes it possible to enjoy the 13-movement suite entirely at face value, as a divertissement, and then return for another hearing in which it seems there is more going on than appeared at first. The delicacy and balance here are quite special. And for out-and-out virtuosity, there is the contrast with Brahms’ very theatrical handling of a Paganini theme – in a work whose première the composer himself performed. These variations are all about technique, and are very tough to play indeed, but Arrau makes their difficulties subservient to their excitement as he builds each of the work’s two “books” (which contain 14 variations apiece) toward breathless climaxes. There is something unassuming rather than flashy in Arrau’s pianism, which in these two works he puts so clearly at the service of the composers’ very different intentions. The result is a disc that is simply a delight to hear.

     Virtuosity is subservient to content as well in Martin Haselböck’s remarkable cycle of Liszt’s organ music. The provenance of these works is frequently complex – Liszt would often tweak others’ organ arrangements of his music, or sometimes alter them substantially, instead of creating them himself from the start – but the historical details are of less interest than the works themselves. The longest of the 11 pieces included in the third volume of this series is Prelude, Fugue and Magnificat from the Symphony to Dante’s “Divina Commedia” (1856-60), begun by Liszt’s assistant, Alexander Wilhelm Gottschalg, then substantially altered by Liszt himself. This is, in fact, Liszt’s largest individual arrangement for the organ, and it is a work of towering strength – with an especially impressive fugue (the portion on which Liszt did the most work). Also here are the 1859 version of “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen,” whose 1862 version Haselböck played in Volume 2 of this series, and Ora Pro Nobis (1865), a work of comparative simplicity and delicacy that makes an effective contrast. Two Wagner-focused pieces appear as well: Pilgrim’s Chorus from “Tannhäuser” (second version, 1862), whose surface simplicity conceals a very artful arrangement, and Am Grabe Richard Wagners (At the Grave of Richard Wagner) (1883), a heartfelt and intimate work whose expressiveness is heightened by inclusion of some Wagnerian motifs. The other works on this disc – whose somewhat disconnected arrangement is its only significant failing – are “A Magyarok Istene” (Hungary’s God) (1881), one of several arrangements Liszt made of a revolutionary poem; Excelsior! – Preludio (1874), one of whose themes Wagner used in Parsifal in 1882; Resignazione (1877), one of several late works in which Liszt seems to express failure or asceticism; Angelus! – Prière aux Anges Gardiens (also 1877), a somewhat less downbeat piece from the same time period; Agnus Dei from Verdi’s Requiem (another 1877 work), a lovely and simple adaptation; and Der Choral “Nun Danket Alle Gott” (1883), a piece considered inferior to Liszt’s earlier organ works when it was first heard, but one whose incorporation of old church music gives it a certain elegance. Haselböck’s playing is sensitive and involved throughout: this is clearly music that he not only understands well but also cares about very deeply.

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