Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 12: Rachmaninoff—Six Moments musicaux, Op. 16; Variations sur un thème de Corelli, Op. 42; Preludes, Op. 32: Nos. 1, 5 and 12. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 2, arranged for piano trio by the composer; Quintet for Piano and Winds, Op. 16, arranged for piano quartet by the composer. Van Swieten Society (Igor Rukhadze and Franc Polman, violins; Bernadette Verhagen, viola; Job ter Haar, cello; Bart van Oort, fortepiano). Quintone. $19.99.
Bruckner: String Quartet in C minor; Hans Rott: String Quartet in C minor. Israel String Quartet (Yigal Tuneh and Avital Steiner, violins; Amit Landau, viola; Zvi Maschkowski, cello). Quintone. $19.99.
Put the words “Rachmaninoff” and “variations” together and most people will think of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra – one of the composer’s most flamboyant and popular works. But Rachmaninoff also wrote a less-often-heard set of variations – for solo piano – and those are the ones played with great style and skill by Idil Biret on the latest Idil Biret Archives CD. The Corelli variations date to 1931, three years before the Paganini rhapsody, and are based on the “La folia” theme from Corelli’s final Op. 5 sonata for violin and continuo; Bach, Cherubini, Liszt and other composers also based works on this theme. Biret handles the variations with restraint and poised skill in this recording, which dates to 1972: after the initial straightforward presentation of the theme, as the variations gain in complexity and pianistic difficulty, she simply calls on her deep reserves of technique to go along with the frequent changes of color, mood and rhythm. The result is very accomplished and convincing. So, in the main, is Biret’s interpretation of the Six Moments musicaux, a much earlier work (1896) whose title recalls Schubert but whose handling of the mostly lyrical material does not. Biret does not turn these works, which are essentially glorified salon music, into big virtuoso display pieces, and that is a good thing. It is only in the third piece, an extended Andante cantabile, that her reading, which is a bit too much on the cerebral side, seems a little out of touch with the music. The CD also offers three of the Op. 32 Preludes in a recording that also dates to 1972 but was not released at the time. These are modest showpieces that serve well as brief encores and nicely display Biret’s considerable technique.
Even less-known than the Rachmaninoff works are some that Beethoven rewrote to give them greater popularity – and make himself more money. Arrangements of complex pieces such as the Symphony No. 2 (which was considered very difficult to play and understand when first performed) gave amateur musicians a way to study the scores and play them over and over again at home. Arrangements of works for winds allowed amateurs – who were far more likely to be string than wind players – to perform pieces at aristocratic and middle-class musical evenings. Even when the arrangements were made by the composers themselves (many were not: popular works were frequently pirated and arranged by others), they fell by the wayside over time, as the underlying music became more popular in its original form and was heard more often, while the self-performance vogue started to fade in the 19th century and beyond. Therefore, the Van Swieten Society’s readings of Beethoven’s own arrangements of his Symphony No. 2 and Op. 16 wind quintet are genuine rarities in the 21st century. They are also curiosities, sounding (especially in the case of the symphony) like bare-bones versions of the originals, fascinatingly revealing the works’ rhythmic and harmonic skeletons but lacking in the tonal richness and color of the fully fleshed-out compositions. This is nevertheless a truly fascinating disc, not only for revealing how Beethoven himself handled arrangements of his music but also for providing a new perspective on pieces whose originals are nowadays quite well-known and frequently played. The chamber musicians are excellent, performing in period style and on period instruments or meticulously crafted copies. No matter how well listeners think they know this symphony and the Op. 16 quintet, they are unlikely ever to have heard them like this: listening to this CD is almost like discovering two entirely new Beethoven works (and in a sense, that is exactly what the disc makes it possible to do).
If it is a very pleasant surprise to discover Beethoven’s own chamber arrangements of some of his music, it is an equal one to encounter a string quartet by Bruckner, who is firmly identified with the symphony and the Mass. But Bruckner did write one quartet, in 1862, while still a student of musical form and orchestration. This was around the time of the F-minor symphony that Bruckner later disowned but that is still occasionally performed under the number “00.” Bruckner’s quartet is not particularly “Brucknerian” in terms that listeners now know, but its C minor tonality is one that he used three times in his symphonies (Nos. 1, 2 and 8), its mysterious opening looks ahead to his handling of later symphonic works, and its slow movement has a theme that resembles one in an 1864 Mass. The main impression left by the work, however, is of absorption of Mendelssohn and Schubert, especially the latter, whose influence continued to be heard in most of Bruckner’s symphonies. The quartet is not especially original, but it has many attractive elements and is worth hearing as a “study piece” by listeners familiar with Bruckner’s later music. On the other hand, the quartet by Hans Rott, which dates to 1878-80, is original – strikingly so – even though Rott himself is almost completely unknown today. Rott lived only 26 years (1858-1884), dying of tuberculosis in an asylum after having a bizarre nervous breakdown in 1881 (he claimed that Brahms, whom he had recently met, had filled a train with dynamite). To the extent that Rott is known at all, it is for his sole symphony, which Bruckner and Mahler (both of whom knew Rott) admired, and which Mahler actually echoed in several of his own symphonies. But the quartet is equally worth knowing, if not more so. It is an amazing compilation of influences ranging from Bach and Mozart to Mendelssohn and Bruckner – which nevertheless has a wholly distinctive sound. It is, surprisingly, in five movements, and includes both a scherzo and a minuet (although this deliberately stiff and plodding movement is no Haydnesque dance). Rott’s quartet is thematically very tightly structured, with a theme in the first movement recurring throughout like a leitmotif. The work uses considerable dissonance, surprising instrumental effects and unusual rhythmic approaches: the Trio of the Scherzo, for example, is in duple rather than triple meter. It is impossible to know what Rott would have written had he not died so very young, but on the evidence of this quartet, Mahler was quite correct in commenting, “What music has lost in him is immeasurable.” The Israel String Quartet plays both works on this CD with warmth, understanding and superb ensemble, showing that even if both these quartets were, to a greater or lesser extent, atypical of their creators, they nevertheless contain much music that is entirely worthy of being heard on its own terms.