April 28, 2011


Liszt: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6; Valse oubliée No. 1; Sonnetto 104 del Petrarca; Schumann: Romanza, Op. 28, No. 2; Novellette, Op. 21, No. 1; de Falla: Miller’s Dance from “El sombrero de tres picos”; David Guion: The Harmonica Player. Byron Janis, piano; Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin (Concerto No. 1); Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Concerto No. 2). Newton Classics. $12.99.

Sarasate: Music for Violin and Orchestra, Volume 3—Concert Fantasy on Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte”; Navarra; Muiňeiras; Nouvelle fantasie sur “Faust” de Gounod; Barcarolle vénitienne (Gondoliéra veneziana); Introduction et Caprice-Jota. Tianwa Yang, violin; Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra conducted by Ernest Martínez Izquierdo. Naxos. $9.99.

Glazunov: Violin Concerto; Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra; Concerto Ballata for Cello and Orchestra; Chant du ménestrel for Cello and Orchestra; Réverie for Horn and Orchestra; Méditation for Violin and Orchestra. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Alexander Romanovsky, piano; Marc Chisson, alto saxophone; Wen-Sinn Yang, cello; Alexey Serov, French horn; Russian National Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Warner. $18.99 (2 CDs).

     Sometimes it is just plain fun to listen to top-notch performers doing what they do best: playing up a storm, even if the music they are playing is heard all too frequently or is something less than inspired. Byron Janis’ excellent 1962 recordings of Liszt’s piano concertos show their age sonically, and the then-Soviet orchestras are not quite as warm and fluid as a modern listener might like, but these readings are a joy nevertheless. Janis simply sweeps into and onto the music, playing with such intensity and skill that he sometimes seems to have 12 fingers. The “Marziale” sections of the two concertos are especially impressive: big, brassy, bold and tremendously exciting. Yes, the readings are lacking in subtlety – but these are not really subtle works, although they are certainly cleverly designed and assembled. It is simply a pleasure to hear Janis have at this music, playing it as if it is the simplest thing in the world to toss off and about rather than as if it is mind-numbingly difficult and a height to be scaled. In fact, the whole CD (parts of which were recorded even earlier than the concertos, in 1961) showcases Janis as a pianist who is thoroughly at home in brash showpieces. But Janis (born 1928) has a subtler side, too, which comes forth especially well in one of the solo pieces here, Liszt’s Sonnetto 104 del Petrarca from Années de pèlerinage. And Janis can be quite playful, too, as in the tiny final encore (lasting just over a minute): The Harmonica Player by Texas composer David Guion (1892-1981). This is one of those CDs that exists simply for pleasure, and provides a great deal of it.

     There is plenty of pleasure as well in the third volume of Naxos’ survey of Pablo Sarasate’s music for violin and orchestra. Do not seek profundity here – there is none to be found, although Tianwa Yang plays these works with great skill, considerable warmth and real style – and is wonderfully accompanied by Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra, which Sarasate himself founded in 1879. Sarasate’s Magic Flute fantasy is quite as well put together and interesting as his better-known one on Carmen, and the second of his two treatments of Gounod’s Faust (the only opera on which Sarasate wrote two fantasies) is as effective as the first. The other works here are surface-level but no less interesting to hear for all that. Navarra is for two violins, and Yang plays both, thanks to the wonders of modern recording – and, in fact, she performs on two different Stradivarius instruments, which is quite something. Muiňeiras is a slight work with some interesting bagpipe-like effects; the Barcarolle vénitienne is appropriately atmospheric; and the Introduction et Caprice-Jota ends the CD splendidly in a burst of virtuosic fireworks that showcases not only the composer’s tremendous abilities but also those of Yang.

     Credit goes to multiple virtuosi in the highly interesting two-CD recording of all the concertos by Alexander Glazunov – which also includes a few short soloist-and-orchestra pieces. This is a typically thoughtful José Serebrier recording, with exemplary playing by the Russian National Orchestra. And the concertos, if not of the first water, are all interesting in their own ways. Actually, “their own way,” singular, is closer to the truth, because every concerto except Piano Concerto No. 1 follows the same basic model: Liszt’s model. That is, they are single-movement, thematically interconnected works that nevertheless sound as if they contain multiple movements because of their tempo changes and overall structure. Glazunov, however, was no Liszt, and in truth the workmanship of most of his concertos – except the Violin Concerto, the most popular of the five – is a touch shoddy. The pieces sometimes feel and sound like second or third drafts rather than finished products. Nevertheless, all have significant points of interest, such as the two-movement structure of the first piano concerto (the second movement being an extended theme-and-variations in which each variation has a very distinct character). The concerto for alto saxophone – Glazunov’s last work – is especially interesting to hear, just because there is so little repertoire of this type for this instrument. And the short pieces interspersed among the concertos are fine miniatures, warm and well-orchestrated and sometimes more affecting (as is the case of the Réverie for horn and orchestra) than some of the longer works. All the soloists offer high levels of skill and virtuosity, and Serebrier has clearly studied this music and plumbed what modest depths it has. Listeners who enjoy late-Romantic works and would like to experience some well-made but rarely heard ones will find this recording a real pleasure, not only for its virtuosity but also for the music’s rarity and charm.

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