Beethoven: Piano Variations—Fifteen Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme, Op. 35, “Eroica”; Twelve Variations on the ‘Menuett à la Viganò’ from Jakob Haibel’s ‘Le nozze disturbate’; Twelve Variations on the Russian Dance from Paul Wranitzky’s ballet ‘Waldmädchen’; Ten Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’ from Antonio Salieri’s ‘Falstaff’; Eight Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’ from Franz Xaver Süssmayr’s ‘Soliman II’; Six Variations in D Major, Op. 76. Ian Yungwook Yoo, piano. Naxos. $8.99.
Idil Biret Concerto Edition, Volume 5: Tchaikovsky—Piano Concerto No. 2; Concert Fantasy. Idil Biret, piano. Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Emil Tabakov and José Serebrier. IBA. $8.99.
Ries: Works for Flute and Piano—Sonate sentimentale, Op. 169; Introduction and Polonaise, Op. 119; Sonata for Flute and Piano, Op. 87; Variations on a Portuguese Hymn. Uwe Grodd, flute; Matteo Napoli, piano. Naxos. $8.99.
Mendelssohn: Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 for Two Pianos. Aglika Genova and Liuben Dimitrov, pianos. Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. CPO. $16.99.
Anyone seeking the profound side of Beethoven will do well to shy away from Ian Yungwook Yoo’s CD of six of the composer’s sets of piano variations. These are display pieces, plain and simple, mostly created before Beethoven’s encroaching deafness marked the beginning of the end of his virtuoso career around the turn of the 19th century. Actually, the “Eroica” variations – the best-known work here – date to 1802, and the Variations in D Major (whose theme is familiar from The Ruins of Athens) were written as late as 1809. But the principle underlying all these works nevertheless holds: make considerable technical demands of the performer without expecting much from him intellectually, and without asking much of the audience other than to pay attention and enjoy the many ways a theme can be twisted and rearranged hither and yon. Yoo’s performance fits the music admirably: it is bright and brash, even a bit pounding, without subtlety but with plenty of flair. The quieter variations are not particularly thoughtful, really – they are more in the nature of pauses to allow pianist and audience to get ready for the next burst of virtuosity. Yoo is technically very impressive, and if his interpretations are rather superficial, so, after all, is the music. The “Eroica” variations lead to his impressive handling of the fugal voices before the brilliant conclusion. The four sets of variations on popular music of Beethoven’s time, if not as elaborate as the ones that Liszt would create some decades later, are all well put together, and all take not-terribly-significant music and spin it out in entertaining ways. Yoo shows himself an impressive technician in this light repertoire, and the CD is fun to hear; but there is nothing on it to show Yoo to be – or ask him to be – particularly thoughtful.
The problem with a pianist as thoughtful as Idil Biret is that she tries to overthink Tchaikovsky’s emotionalism and his formal shortcomings, with the result – in the latest CD in the Idil Biret Concerto Edition – that she plays very well but not very convincingly. The sprawling first movement of the Second Piano Concerto simply does not come together here: its seams constantly show, its somewhat overdone repetitions are more obvious than they need to be, and its forward momentum is lacking. Biret relaxes in the second movement, played in its original (and much better) version, in which it has something of the flavor of a triple concerto for piano, violin and cello. This movement sounds unforced and sweet, but not overdone. But then Biret chooses so slow a tempo for the final Allegro con fuoco that the finale comes across as ponderous, a foot-dragging slog rather than a bright capstone to the solemnity and considerable length that have come before. Emil Tabakov, who conducts the concerto, goes along with Biret fastidiously, and the Bilkent Philharmonic plays adequately if without real passion. The orchestra might have been expected to be more pliable under José Serebrier in the Concert Fantasy, but here too Biret over-analyzes the music, taking it apart so that it fractures into component pieces that are, it must be said, none too coherent. This is one Tchaikovsky work that really needs firm control by both pianist and conductor to have a strong effect: the form is experimental and not always successful, but individual themes and sections are simply gorgeous, and the discontinuities can come across as pleasant surprises if well handled. Here they simply make the piece seem chaotic. The result is a very well-played CD that does not sound idiomatic at all, as if Biret really does not care much for Tchaikovsky’s idiosyncratic style of composition.
Uwe Grodd and Matteo Napoli do seem to enjoy the music of Ferdinand Ries, for all that the works are on the trivial side. The piano is more the focus here than the flute – Ries was a famous piano virtuoso – but the flute writing is pleasant and idiomatic, if not especially challenging: most of these pieces were intended for performance by adept amateurs, not professionals, and the Introduction and Polonaise would certainly have given an amateur flautist a workout while providing a pleasant 10 minutes of listening in a 19th-century drawing room. The most substantial work on the CD is the Sonate sentimentale, a well-constructed and nicely balanced work that makes no pretense to profundity but that has some heft to it. The other sonata here is shorter and lighter – its central slow movement lasts only a minute and a half – but concludes with a very finely honed set of variations. The Variations on a Portuguese Hymn are very well constructed, too, and are especially interesting to hear because the hymn that Ries uses is Adeste fidelis (“Oh come, all ye faithful”). Hearing this usually solemn tune, so ubiquitous at Christmas, turned every which way – including, at the end, into a bright and bouncy version – is a very enjoyable listening experience, as indeed is the entire disc.
Even more enjoyable, and offering music of much more substance, is the (++++) CD of Mendelssohn’s two concertos for two pianos, exceptionally well played by Aglika Genova and Liuben Dimitrov, who handle the music with such understanding and apparently intuitive communication that it often sounds as if there is only one soloist, playing a remarkably large instrument. Genova and Dimitrov move, apparently effortlessly, between the flair of the outgoing outer movements of the first (E Major) concerto and the tenderness of the central Adagio non troppo, which sounds tender and sweet without becoming maudlin. The altogether grander second concerto (in A-flat Major), which lasts some 50% longer than the earlier one (the two are separated by only one year), is handled from the start in a more serious manner, Genova and Dimitrov handing off elements to each other – or playing together – with something approaching solemnity, although not so much of it as to disguise the attractive and ever-changing flow of the music. The very difficult piano parts do not sound difficult in this performance, where the whole focus is on the flow and emotion communicated by the music. Ulf Schirmer is an excellent partner for Genova and Dimitrov, conducting the Münchner Rundfunkorchester with consummate skill, allowing the soloists to be in the forefront most of the time but taking over the spotlight from them as appropriate, and bringing as much sensitivity and nuance to the orchestral parts as the pianists bring to the keyboard ones. Warm, moving and suffused with beauty from start to finish, this is an excellent recording of music whose technical difficulty and performance requirements have kept it relatively unknown, but which deserves to be heard far more often in tribute to its skillful construction and sheer loveliness.