December 02, 2010


Brahms: Handel Variations, Op. 24; Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Six Piano Pieces, Op. 118; Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119. Murray Perahia, piano. Sony. $11.98.

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 17: Piano Sonatas Nos. 11, 16 and 17 (“Tempest”). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

Chopin: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Janina Fialkowska, piano; Vancouver Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bramwell Tovey. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-3. Viktoria Postnikova, piano; Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Newton Classics. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     There is considerable skill involved in making the piano, which is essentially a percussion instrument, go against its deepest nature and become smooth and lyrical. Murray Perahia, who is known primarily for his Bach and Mozart, shows in his new Brahms recording for that he is fully capable of eliciting nuance and elegance in music that can all too easily sound grandiose or muddy. This is Perahia’s first recording of Brahms in 20 years, and it sounds as if he has spent those two decades thinking about just what Brahms has to say. The Handel Variations begin with all the simplicity of Handel’s tune, on which the older composer himself composed variations. Then, with subtlety and care, Perahia introduces the various complexities that Brahms brought to this simple melody, bringing forth the composer’s mastery of multiple variation techniques before producing a final Fugue that is simply stunning in its combination of the variation and fugal forms. It is apparent that Perahia sees these variations as descending directly from the Baroque while still incorporating all the Romantic techniques that Brahms could bring to them. The result is a performance both thoughtful and thrilling. And Perahia handles the other works on this CD with equal aplomb. The Two Rhapsodies are a study in contrasts here, the second somewhat more effective in its passion and intensity – the first is marked Agitato but never quite sounds agitated enough. The 10 end-of-career piano works of Opp. 118 and 119 fare very well: Brahms’ final piano pieces are thoughtful, decidedly forward-looking in harmony, and rather difficult to hear as well as play. Their emotional compass seems at the same time very wide and fairly constricted, as if each of them is reaching beyond the limitations of the piano and, in a sense, of music itself. Perahia does an especially fine job of contrasting the lighter pieces in these two sets – such as the Intermezzo, Op. 119, No. 3 – with the broader and more ambiguous ones. There is tremendous beauty in these works, but it is a beauty that is oddly cool, for all its Romanticism. Perahia here winningly combines his top-notch technique with a very impressive understanding of the structure and underlying meaning of these highly affecting more-than-miniatures. The CD as a whole is an outstanding one.

     The latest Idil Biret Archives release is exceptional, too – one of the best in the label’s Beethoven series. These releases are appearing rather confusingly: this is the 17th in the Beethoven Edition and the eighth of Beethoven’s sonatas, and there is no obvious arrangement of the music (for example, the new volume contains Op. 31, Nos. 1 and 2; Op. 31, No. 3 was on Volume 4, which came out almost two years ago). Biret’s performances are not all equally effective, primarily because her substantial intellect sometimes gets in the way of the sheer exuberance that makes some of this music more accessible – and also because her tempos, in some works, tend to drag. But neither of those criticisms applies to this latest release. Here Biret shows herself very much in the line of her mentor, Wilhelm Kempff, is the way she preserves the overarching structure of these sonatas and brings out their grandeur without resorting to pounding or overdramatizing. The four-movement No. 11, Op. 22, would likely be more popular if it always received a performance like Biret’s (which dates to 2002). The sonata is colorful, ebullient, filled with both virtuosity and charm, clearly from Beethoven’s early period (it dates to 1800) but looking ahead to some of the techniques that Beethoven would refine in his later music. Biret’s playing is idiomatic and not at all overdone – the sonata seems to grow naturally under her tutelage. Sonata No. 16, Op. 31, No. 1, is also highly impressive, filled with grace and dignity (especially in its central Adagio grazioso) and incorporating even more of the techniques that Beethoven was later to develop to a much higher degree. Biret does not overdo these foreshadowings – she plays the music as it is written, letting its key changes and contrasts of loud and soft passages emerge clearly and effectively. This recording too dates to 2002 – but the performance of Sonata No. 17, Op.31, No. 2, the “Tempest,” is from 2006, and Biret handles this work (the best known of the sonatas on this CD) somewhat differently. The first movement here is perhaps a bit too understated: there could be more contrast between the opening Largo and the highly dramatic Allegro that follows. Indeed, there is little that is tempestuous in Biret’s performance – she keeps the music under control that is just slightly too tight. The calm of the second movement and lovely flow of the third, however, are handled with great skill and warmth, resulting in an overall performance that is highly satisfying if not quite as effective as those of the other two sonatas on this disc.

     Lyricism and interpretative beauty can of course be found not only in solo piano performances but also in readings of concertos, and Janina Fialkowska’s excellence in Chopin comes through very clearly indeed in her new ATMA Classique recording of the composer’s two concertos. Fialkowska had what was feared to be a career-ending tumor in her left arm in 2002, but by 2004 she was performing again, thanks to muscle-transfer surgery; and her fine Chopin has since been, if anything, even better. The weaknesses of these concertos are well known and have been over-discussed, especially in terms of the failure of Chopin to integrate the orchestra with the soloist – they generally take turns and certainly never seem to be in conflict or, for that matter, in much of a dialogue. What Fialkowska manages to do in her new recording – thanks to excellent support from Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony – is make this apparent structural flaw into an advantage. The concertos are filled with warmth here, a kind of relaxed discussion occurring between piano and orchestra – without a great deal of tension or conflict. It is as if old friends are having a pleasant talk about matters of mutual interest on which they sometimes disagree, but never very vehemently. The result is that the concertos have more the feeling of chamber music, of partnership, than of anything competitive. Everything is cantabile here, with the two central movements (both marked Larghetto) especially lovely. These are performances of warmth, delicacy and deep understanding, among the best recent recordings these concertos have received.

     Viktoria Postnikova’s readings of the three Tchaikovsky piano concertos are less recent – Newton Classics focuses on re-releasing recordings from the late analog and early digital eras. And these performances (Concertos Nos. 1 and 3 from 1983, No. 2 from 1984) will not be to all tastes, despite the excellence of the piano playing and the very fine accompaniment offered by Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the Vienna Symphony. The approach here is in some ways the opposite of that taken by Fialkowska and Tovey in Chopin: Postnikova and Rozhdestvensky are determined to show just how large-scale and impressive Tchaikovsky’s works are. At every opportunity, from the very slow openings they use in Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 to the stately and highly dramatic conclusions of all three works, these performers emphasize the monumental – even when doing so means introducing rubato and making Tchaikovsky’s already episodic structure even more fragmented (notably in the first movements of the first two concertos). Everything about these performances, from the very big piano sound to the broad and grand orchestral passages, is large-scale and rather unsubtle – with one interesting exception in the second movement of Concerto No. 2. Here, where Tchaikovsky created a fascinating kind of chamber-music-within-a-concerto by giving the violin and cello, as well as the piano, extended solo passages, there is excellent attention to detail and plenty of nuance and understanding. These are performances that grow better after the first hearing, as their excesses come to seem less important and their many beauties move more strongly to the fore. The early digital recording is quite good, and listeners will find this two-CD set highly interesting even though aspects of the performances are somewhat overdone.

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