Brahms: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Scherzo in E flat minor, Op. 4; Four Ballades, Op. 10; Klavierstücke, Op. 76. Stephen Kovacevich, piano; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Newton Classics. $17.99 (2 CDs).
Chopin: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Four Ballades; Barcarolle in F sharp, Op. 60; Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49. Jorge Bolet, piano; Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal conducted by Charles Dutoit. Newton Classics. $17.99 (2 CDs).
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; Concerto in F (versions for two pianos). Katia and Marielle Labèque, pianos. Newton Classics. $12.99.
There was a time in the dim, dark past – that is, about 30 years ago – when digital recordings did not yet exist or were barely in their infancy, but musicians were nevertheless making extraordinary music that was captured with the best available technology of the time. As “DDD” recording progressed (and many listeners have forgotten or never knew that much of it was pretty awful in its first years), older performances fell by the wayside as the technical quality of recording came to supersede the musical quality that had been preeminent just a few years earlier. This is not intended as a harsh judgment – eventually, many all-digital recordings rose to great heights. But what ever happened to the fine recorded music of the late analog and very early digital era? The answer is that it is still out there, and the Newton Classics label is doing classical-music lovers a huge favor by releasing a wide variety of recordings that have stood, and deserve to stand, the test of time. Even listeners who already own the music recorded here – and most will – may very well want to add at least some of these Newton Classics recordings to their libraries.
The Brahms two-CD release is a perfect case in point. Stephen Kovacevich (born 1940) is perhaps better known as Stephen Bishop – he has performed under both names, and also sometimes as Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich. He was in splendid form in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when these recordings were made (the piano concertos are analog recordings from 1979; the other recordings are digital originals from 1983). These performances have plenty of style, but beyond that, they have a sense of scale: these are really big versions of the Brahms concertos, sounding more like symphonies with piano obbligato (as the First, in particular, was accused of being) than like virtuoso display pieces. Yet there is virtuosity aplenty here: Kovacevich offers technically splendid readings in which the piano fully holds its own against the very considerable orchestral forces arrayed under Sir Colin Davis. The London Symphony was not quite at the pinnacle of its powers at this time, but it was a very fine if not quite preeminent orchestra, and Davis – already in his 50s when these recordings were made – was fully in command of the music and musicians. These are exemplary readings of the concertos, filled with subtlety as well as power. And the solo piano works are equally impressive: Kovacevich has a sure sense of when to make things weighty and when to lighten up a bit, and his Brahms combines real flow with internal consistency and a strong sense of rhythm and style.
The contrast between the Brahms Ballades and those of Chopin on the two-CD Jorge Bolet release is a fascinating one. It is not just how different the pieces themselves are – each set encapsulates its composer in many ways, and Chopin’s lyricism is a far cry from Brahms’ intensity and near-stolidity. But there is also a tremendous difference in approach between Kovacevich and Jorge Bolet (1914-1990). The Chopin set is all-digital in origin and represents, in the concertos, some of Bolet’s latest work, recorded in 1989 (the shorter pieces date to 1986). Bolet’s late recordings with Charles Dutoit and Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal were among the best of his career: elegant, balanced, emotive, clear and poised. The Chopin concertos flow gorgeously here, and their well-known propensity for giving the orchestra little to do becomes irrelevant as Dutoit uses everything that Chopin does provide to the fullest possible extent. Bolet was an iconoclast in his time, insisting on using Baldwin and Bechstein pianos when most other artists opted (as they still do) for Steinways. This sort of dispute is the stuff of musical trivia, except to the extent that it affects how performances sound. Bolet’s Chopin sounds simply wonderful. He plays with commitment and intensity, fully understanding the romanticism of the music without going overboard into mere display or undue emotionalism. He was an exceptional pianist, and this two-CD set will likely make fans of those who do not already know his work.
The Labèque sisters (Katia, born 1950, and Marielle, born 1952) were and are exceptional pianists, too, and their Gershwin CD is an utter delight to hear. But this 1980 recording (a very early all-digital product) is also a bit of a disappointment – for reasons unrelated to the high quality of the playing. The reason is that this CD is only as long as a 1980s-era vinyl record – 43 minutes, barely half the playing time available on a modern CD. Since its pricing (unlike that of the two-CD Newton Classics sets) is not much of a bargain, it becomes more of a curiosity than a disc that can be wholeheartedly recommended. It still gets a (+++) rating, though, simply because the performances themselves are so well done and so interesting. No one is likely to prefer the two-piano version of the Concerto in F to the version with orchestra – there is something too bare-bones about the work in this form – but it cannot be denied that the Labèque sisters play it with great style and considerable élan. Rhapsody in Blue is even more interesting. Will listeners miss the floating clarinet sounds and jazzy wails of the brass? Of course. But instead of those, the Labèques deliver a knockout recital-style performance that sounds as if it belongs in a dance hall. It is all rhythm and beat and brightness and a series of great tunes tossed back and forth with aplomb. It is really a delight to hear – but whether those 14 minutes are worth the price of the CD must be a matter of individual decision. One thing, though, is for sure: Newton Classics is doing a superb job of bringing back, for the 21st century, some of the most interesting performances made by artists in the final decades of the 20th. This is a label that bears watching – and hearing.