February 09, 2012

(++++) PIANISTIC PORTRAYALS

Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 4—Volume VIII, “Album de chȃteau”; Volume IX, “Album pour piano, violon, violoncello, harmonium” (piano pieces only). Alessandro Marangoni, piano. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Albéniz: Iberia. Peter Schaaf, piano. Victor Elmaleh Collection. $15.

     These excellent releases are examples of portraiture in two senses. The composers have created pictures of themselves (Rossini) or their country (Albéniz); the performers, in re-creating the music, provide listeners with views of themselves as interpreters and musicians. The fourth two-CD set in Naxos’ planned series of all Rossini’s piano music includes the entire eighth volume of the Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”) plus five excerpts from the ninth – a volume that also includes works for instruments other than piano. Alessandro Marangoni continues to show tremendous skill with and understanding of this music, which is by no means as trivial or salon-like as the Péchés de vieillesse are often deemed to be. In fact, several pieces here qualify in length and complexity as pianistic fantasias or even tone poems. Examples are Spécimen de l’ancien régime, which contains a waltz and fugue and runs nearly 18 minutes; the contrasting and lighter-hearted Spécimen de mon temps, which spends 13 minutes exploring the operatic fashions of Rossini’s time; and the 15-minute Prélude semipastorale, a highly ornamented work that progresses through multiple keys. There is plenty of lightness here, to be sure: Prélude pretentieux, for instance, is filled with fugal counterpoint to and beyond the point of ostentatious display, while the delightfully titled Tarantelle pur sang (avec Traversée de la procession) – “Purebred tarantella with procession crossing” – contrasts the dance’s headlong progress with two interruptions in which a stately procession, complete with hymn tune, gets in the way. It is the richness, the contrast among these pieces that makes them so delightful to hear, and Marangoni’s free-and-easy virtuosity lets listeners focus on the delights of the music rather than any struggles of the pianist (Rossini hinted that these works were for fourth-class pianists like himself – a joke for sure). Each CD here contains a full 80 minutes of music, the maximum for the medium, and to accommodate that, the 12 pieces from Volume VIII are split between the two discs, while the five from Volume IX are not only split but also presented out of order (Nos. 9 and 12 on the first CD; Nos. 6, 7 and 11 on the second). Given Rossini’s rather dysfunctional sense of organization throughout the Péchés de vieillesse, this diminishes listening pleasure not at all. And the arrangement makes it possible for the second CD to conclude with two real gems. One is Marche et reminiscences pour mon dernier voyage, a funeral march into which Rossini weaves excerpts from no fewer than seven of his operas: Tancredi, Cenerentola, La donna del lago, Semiramide, Guillaume Tell, Otello and Il barbiere di Siviglia. The other, appearing as the last piece in this release, is the enchantingly odd Echantillon de blague mélodique sur les noires de la main droite (“Example of a melodic joke on the black keys for the right hand”), which is just what the title suggests – and contains a main melody that Rossini called chant cochon (“singing pig”). Rossini’s health had declined significantly by the time he created the Péchés de vieillesse, but his ebullience and creativity clearly had not – and Marangoni’s delight in these works comes through clearly in his performance of them.

     Peter Schaaf’s recording of Isaac Albéniz’ Iberia showcases very different personalities, both in composition and in performance. Schaaf is not as facile at the keyboard as Marangoni, and Albéniz is not as accessible or trenchant a composer as Rossini. Yet this is an exceptionally fine Iberia performance, drawing listeners in through Schaaf’s sheer intensity and the dedication that he so clearly brings to each of the 12 pieces. One thing that this recording has in common with Marangoni’s is that it is hard, in both, to choose “best” or “favorite” tracks, since every one has so much to recommend it. The contrast between the slow and solemn central part of El Corpus en Sevilla and the bravado at the end of the piece is one highlight; the effective way Schaaf brings out the alternation of 3/4 and 6/8 bars in Rondeña is another. But Schaaf’s handling of these pieces from the first two of the four books of Iberia is ultimately less impressive than his way with the more-complex pieces of the third and fourth books. El Albaicín is simply beautiful here in its textural variety; the literally off-beat accents of El Polo come through clearly and effectively; the rhythmic sway of the final Eritaña is a worthy capstone to the overall work. The only piece that is not quite what it could be is Lavapiés, whose fiendish difficulty Schaaf surmounts well enough – but at the expense of some of the humor and expressiveness that this piece should ideally have. That is less a disappointment than a small detail, though: as a whole, Schaaf’s Iberia is a very considerable achievement, delightful to hear and played with enthusiasm that is absolutely infectious.

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