October 28, 2010


Sarasate: Music for Violin and Orchestra, Volume 2—Fantasy on “Carmen”; Concert Fantasy on Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”; Canciones rusas; El canto del ruiseñor; La chasse; Jota de Pablo. Tianwa Yang, violin; Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra conducted by Ernest Martínez Izquierdo. Naxos. $8.99.

Kreutzer: Violin Concertos Nos. 17-19. Axel Strauss, violin; San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Andrew Mogrelia. Naxos. $8.99.

Schumann: Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra. Florian Uhlig, piano; Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Christoph Poppen. Hänssler Classic. $18.99.

Ries: Concerto Pastoral, Op. 120; Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 115; Introduction et Rondeau Brillant. Christopher Hinterhuber, piano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Uwe Grodd. Naxos. $8.99.

Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 7: Miaskovsky—Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3; Liszt—Nuages gris; Lugubre Gondola No. 1; Scriabin—Five Preludes; Rachmaninoff—Prelude, Op. 3, No. 2. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

     Whether strings are bowed (violin family), plucked (harpsichord family) or struck (piano, which is essentially a percussion instrument), they consistently produce some of the most interesting of all classical music – including some that has become highly familiar and some that is rarely heard at all. Actually, in the case of Pablo Sarasate, his own music can be categorized that way: heard constantly or very rarely. The second Naxos volume of Sarasate’s music for violin and orchestra, played by Tianwa Yang with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra under Ernest Martínez Izquierdo, opens with the hyper-famous Carmen Fantasy, which here gets a strongly virtuosic treatment that also flows well as the music progresses from theme to theme. The much-less-known Roméo et Juliette fantasy makes a wonderful contrast, with its long, singing lines and beauty of tone throughout. The remaining pieces on the CD all have something special to recommend them. Canciones rusas is a setting of two Russian folk songs and includes balalaika-like pizzicato effects. El canto del ruiseñor (“Song of the Nightingale”) is, like the fantasy on Gounod’s Shakespeare-based opera, a work of emotion in which the virtuosity is largely secondary to the expressiveness. La chasse combines a suspenseful opening with a series of unusual techniques, especially the bowing toward the end. And Jota de Pablo is a personal work that, on the one hand, let Sarasate display his showmanship; and, on the other, gave him the opportunity to surprise the audience with a muted pianissimo conclusion. The élan of the performances here does full justice to the music without attempting to give it depths that it does not, and was not intended to, possess.

     Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831) did intend his violin works to have both depth and scale, and his final three concertos – especially the last two, in E minor and D minor respectively – are impressive. Kreutzer is best known as the dedicatee of Beethoven’s Op. 47 sonata for violin and piano, but he was a considerable violinist in his own right (although he never played Beethoven’s Op. 47 in public), and was also well known as a teacher. He composed a number of stage works, but is best known as a composer for his pieces for violin, which remain largely classical in style even when using a Beethoven-size orchestra. Axel Strauss and Andrew Mogrelia have clearly looked closely at what Kreutzer had to offer, for their recording of his final concertos showcases them impressively. No. 17, in G major, is most interesting for its lyricism in both the first and second movements. No. 18 has an unusual aria-like section marked Grave in the first movement, plus a very expressive central Adagio. No. 19 alternates dramatic and lyrical sections to very fine effect, with a central movement that is stately rather than highly emotional. The weakest movements – although they are still very pleasant – are the finales, which tend to be significantly lighter than much of what has gone before. Kreutzer clearly planned his concertos this way, though, and certainly Strauss and Mogrelia make everything as effective as it can be.

     Turning to strings that are struck and to a 200th-anniversary celebration leads to an excellent disc of all Schumann’s works for piano and orchestra – and there are not as many of them as a listener might expect. Aside from the famous Piano Concerto, there are two showpieces that were unknown for a long time but have come more firmly into the repertoire in recent years: Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op. 92, and Konzert-Allegro with Introduction, Op. 134. The first of these, in particular, stands up quite well both for its virtuosity and for its expressiveness. And its orchestration is unusually well constructed, providing warmth and depth that go well with the piano part. The later Konzert-Allegro is brighter and more cheerful, and the piano is more dominant than in the earlier work. Florian Uhlig plays both these pieces, and the Piano Concerto, with freshness and enthusiasm, allowing the music to sweep through its many moods effectively; and he is well served by Christoph Poppen and the fine playing of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern – this sounds like a true partnership. The CD also includes two works that are heard very rarely heard indeed. One is a concerto movement in D minor, written two years before Schumann began work on what would become his Piano Concerto. Left incomplete and reconstructed only in recent years – a version was first performed in 1986 – this movement is of some historical value and is worth listening to, but is not in itself highly creative. Of more interest is the piano-and-orchestra version of the Abegg Variations, Schumann’s Op. 1. These variations are very early Schumann indeed, dating to 1830, when the composer was 20 years old. The variations are known as a virtuoso work for solo piano, but the version heard here has never been recorded before. It uses Schumann’s directions for an orchestration that he never completed, and gives the work a solidity and scale that it does not have as a solo piano piece. Like many other rediscoveries in connection with Schumann’s bicentennial, it helps provide a fuller picture of the composer.

     A full picture of Ferdinand Ries’ piano concertos is emerging disc by disc as Naxos releases volume after volume of these well-constructed, frequently very interesting and long-forgotten works. The latest collaboration between Christopher Hinterhuber and Uwe Grodd – the fourth in this series – again offers very fine performances of pieces that contain many interesting elements even though, taken as a whole, they are more well-crafted than truly original. The numbering of Ries’ concertos is very confusing – he wrote nine, but the first was for violin, and he numbered all nine sequentially – and their exact dates of composition are not always clear. Concerto Pastoral got its title from the composer, who probably knew it would be compared with the sixth symphony by his teacher, Beethoven. It has some resemblances to the symphony in the speed of its movements and the way the themes unfold, but they are more uses of conventions of the time than imitations of Beethoven’s creation. There is one especially intriguing element: a solo horn in the finale playing in a meter different from that of the piano and orchestra. The C minor concerto, Op. 115, harks back both to Beethoven’s in the same key and to Mozart’s minor-key concertos, and again has an unusually interesting finale, its headlong motion interrupted by an Adagio section. Also on this CD is a late work by Ries (1784-1838): the Introduction et Rondeau Brillant is known to date to 1835 and combines an impressive slow introduction with a very virtuosic faster section. Rather formulaic in structure, it is very well put together, and Hinterhuber and Grodd give it – and the rest of the music here – a strong and forthright performance that highlights Ries’ skills as both pianist and composer.

     The highlights in the latest Idil Biret Archives release are this very thoughtful pianist’s treatment of the very different works of three 20th-century Russian composers. This interesting but brief Biret recording – most of it originally issued by the short-lived Finnadar label in 1980, with the result that the CD, like most LPs of 30 years ago, lasts only three-quarters of an hour – offers an unusual chance to hear significant works by Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881-1950), whose music is still not often played outside Russia. His Sonata No. 2 predates the Russian Revolution; No. 3 postdates it. No. 2 includes repeated use of the Dies Irae that was to permeate the works of Rachmaninoff (and that had been used throughout the Romantic era since Berlioz’ day). Both the sonatas are, in effect, extended first movements, yet they sound complete in themselves, and Biret handles them with strength and her typical thoughtfulness. Her playing of Scriabin’s Five Preludes is also especially good, with a fine sense of balance and texture. The Liszt pieces fit rather oddly here, being nicely enough played but not especially distinguished; they were in fact not on the original Finnadar release and were recorded in 1978, a year earlier than the rest of the music here. As for the Rachmaninoff showpiece in C-sharp minor, while certainly well performed, it lacks a bit of the fire and drama that it can have in a somewhat less controlled and more abandoned performance. Nevertheless, this latest entry from the Biret archives continues to prove, if proof were still needed, that the Turkish pianist has both intelligence and technique to spare, and a willingness to tackle both familiar works and ones that remain distinctly unusual.

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