May 06, 2010


Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 4: Berg—Piano Sonata No. 1; Webern—Variations, Op. 27; Boulez—Piano Sonata No. 2. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

Rautavaara: Before the Icons (1955/2005); A Tapestry of Life (2007). Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam. Ondine. $16.99.

     The gigantism of many works of late Romanticism and the early 20th century produced various reactions in composers as the century progressed. Some, led by Schoenberg, sought an entirely new tonal language, which others, notably Webern, then used to take miniaturization to an extreme. Others adapted the large forces commonly used early in the century to new ways of thinking and new instrumental emphases – led in this, not always knowingly, by Mahler, who was as capable of using his huge orchestras for chamber-music detail as for overwhelming power. The latest Idil Biret Archive release from the Finnadar catalogue – actually a compilation of two separate Finnadar vinyl records – shows the “miniaturization” trend quite clearly. Alban Berg’s first piano sonata – which is his Op. 1, dating to 1907 – actually straddles the older and newer musical approaches in some ways. It almost (but not quite) breaks with tonality; it almost (but not quite) is organized in a horizontal/contrapuntal fashion rather than a vertical/harmonic one; and despite its wandering chromaticism, it retains a certain amount of Romantic sensibility. Webern’s Variations, written much later (1936), are fully in the 12-tone camp, with all three movements based on the same row. Here the horizontal symmetry is nearly complete in the first movement, while there is vertical but non-harmonic symmetry in the second, which is a canon. Boulez’ second piano sonata is later still (1947-8), and is the most difficult piece on this CD to hear – and to play. There is an underlying structure that Boulez strictly controls, as often in his works; but, as is also common, the structural underpinnings are by no means apparent to the listener, even after several hearings. To the extent that Webern’s Variations retains a sort of classical purity within a new musical language, Boulez’ sonata has a complexity of arrangement and sound that looks forward to further developments in piano composition (by Boulez himself and others) while nearly abandoning any clear ties to the older forms from which it grew. To say that this music will not be to everyone’s taste is an understatement, but Idil Biret makes the case for all of it – particularly the Boulez – with a combination of virtuosity and intellectual understanding that is quite remarkable. Indeed, Biret, whose approach can at times seem a touch too cerebral for gentler and more delicate works of earlier times, seems quite at home here, delivering thoroughly impressive interpretations from start to finish.

     Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Before the Icons had its start as a fairly modest piano work, too. Simply called Icons and written in 1955, the musical portrait of six Byzantine icons was the Finnish composer’s Op. 6. But unlike the Berg, Webern and (especially) Boulez works played by Biret, Icons always “wanted” to outgrow its original miniature form: Rautavaara says he knew from the start that he would orchestrate it. It took him half a century to do so, though, and when he did, in 2005, he produced a much larger work than he had originally written. It is this piece, now in 10 movements and called Before the Icons, that gets a knowing and carefully shaped performance from the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under Leif Segerstam. The four added movements are called Prayer, and are intended to represent people praying before the icons described in the orchestrations of the six original movements. Most of the work is lyrical and uplifting – although clearly in the musical language of the 20th and 21st centuries. The first movement (“The Death of the Mother of God”), third (“The Madonna of Blakernaya”) and fifth (“The Holy Women at the Sepulchre”) are most traditional – along with the concluding “Amen” – in their religious expression. The second movement (“Two Village Saints”) has more of a folk-music flavor; the fourth (“The Baptism of Christ”) builds in more dimensions than the title would lead the listener to expect; and the sixth (“Archangel Michael Fighting the Antichrist”) is an effective battle scene – with Rautavaara here using the substantial orchestral size clamorously. Before the Icons is paired by Segerstam with one of the prolific Rautavaara’s even more recent works, A Tapestry of Life, whose underlying theme nicely complements the religious foundation of Before the Icons even though the music itself is quite different. A Tapestry of Life is a mostly solemn four-movement work. “The Stars” is a night vision of stars falling in a garden; “Halcyon Days” looks backward to contentment despite some disturbing episodes; “Sighs and Tears” is mostly a lament; and “The Last Polonaise” is a solemn dance, although it has little in common with the Valse Triste of Sibelius, whose successor in Finnish music Rautavaara is sometimes considered to be. Neither this moody work nor the largely solemn Before the Icons will necessarily have immediate, widespread appeal, but Rautavaara does speak his own musical language successfully and with skill, and those who find his approach to melody, harmony and orchestration attractive will welcome a chance to hear these two recent examples of his thinking and feeling.

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