January 28, 2010


Mendelssohn: Concertos for Two Pianos. The Silver Garburg Piano Duo (Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg); Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie conducted by Christopher Hogwood. Oehms. $16.99.

Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 1: Ravel—Sérénade grotesque; Gaspard de la nuit; Stravinsky—Les cinq doigts; Valse pour les enfants; Pétrouchka—3 scènes. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

     Lyricism, flow and beauty, the hallmarks of so much of Mendelssohn’s music, are as integral to his two two-piano concertos as they are to his two concertos for solo piano. But the two-piano works are far less frequently performed, perhaps because they require the duo-pianists to subsume individual virtuosity into uniformity of sound and approach. These are not “display pieces,” but they are wonderful music – and when pianists are as comfortable with them (and apparently with each other) as are Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg, the results are exemplary. These two teachers from the Academy of Music in Hanover present readings of the concertos in E (1823) and A-flat (1824) that effectively balance the works’ classical poise with their Romantic emotions. They are beautifully complemented by the chamber-size Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie, which Christopher Hogwood directs with the clarity and balance that have long been trademarks of his musical approach. The brighter (if not really frothier) Concerto in E comes across particularly well, being more strongly immersed in classicism than its slightly later companion. The Concerto in A-flat is more symphonic and has more of a Romantic temperament; it is less straightforward in both style and harmony. A larger ensemble would have worked well here, but the considerable clarity that Hogwood brings to this work makes an effective argument for keeping the accompaniment modest. Silver and Garburg also have a fine understanding of the differing scales of these two works, handling the one in E with positively Mozartean finesse while allowing the one in A-flat to emerge in larger scale and with greater scope. This CD is about as effective an argument as possible for more-frequent performances of these unfairly neglected and thoroughly winning works.

     Idil Biret’s first CD in yet another series from Idil Biret Archives is winning, too. In addition to the Beethoven Edition and Concerto Edition, both of which are still in progress, IBA is now releasing an Archive Edition of Biret’s solo non-Beethoven performances. The first CD, of Ravel and Stravinsky, was recorded in 1975 and originally released in 1976 on the short-lived Finnadar label. In many ways, it shows Biret at her best. Her Beethoven and concerto series are variable in quality and impact, always informed by her obviously strong intellect and fine technique, but sometimes overmastered (from a purely musical point of view) by performances that seem to have been over-thought and that therefore lack a certain spark of apparent spontaneity. Not so here. Biret surely thought about the music on this CD as carefully as she thought about other works she played, but there is a flow here, a sense of excitement and involvement, that is more winning than her illuminating but sometimes slow (even stodgy) performances in the other IBA series. The character of the music may well have something to do with this. Gaspard de la nuit is a display piece and a fascinating bit of grotesquerie, and Biret certainly perceives this, producing an especially eerie Le Gibet. The Sérénade grotesque, Ravel’s very first piano piece (dating to 1893, when the composer was 18), ties interestingly to the later work, especially to Scarbo. The Stravinsky pieces are studies in contrast, with the Pétrouchka excerpts giving Biret plenty of virtuoso opportunities, while Les cinq doigts requires (and receives) considerable subtlety and Valse pour les enfants is a thoroughly charming trifle. If the other releases in the Idil Biret Archive Edition prove as convivial as this first one, the series will be a winner all the way.

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