May 10, 2012

(++++) VIRTUOSI IN FOCUS


Accordion Concertos by Ole Schmidt, Anders Koppel, Martin Lohse and Per Norgård. Bjarke Mogensen, accordion; Danish National Chamber Orchestra conducted by Rolf Gupta. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

English Recorder Concertos by Richard Harvey, Sir Malcolm Arnold and Gordon Jacob. Michala Petri, recorder; City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong conducted by Jean Thorel. OUR Recordings. $16.99 (SACD).

Joseph Martin Kraus: Concertos for Viola and Orchestra, VB 153b and 153c; Concerto for Viola, Cello and Orchestra, VB 153a. David Aaron Carpenter, viola; Riitta Pesola, cello; Tapiola Sinfonietta. Ondine. $16.99.

Solo Harp: The Best of Yolanda Kondonassis. Azica. $16.99.

Rachmaninoff: Morceaux de Fantaisie, Op. 3; Études-Tableaux, Op. 33; Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. Nareh Arghamanyan, piano. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

      In classical recordings, it is generally the music that draws purchasers – but by no means always.  Sometimes it is the chance to hear a specific performer’s virtuosity, or to hear high-quality playing of an unfamiliar instrument, that is the major attraction.  For most listeners outside Denmark and other countries with a strong accordion tradition, the interest in a Dacapo SACD featuring Bjarke Mogensen will likely be more in the instrument he plays than in the specific works in which he plays it.  The accordion generally has a less-than-stellar reputation in the musical world, and certainly is not a primary instrument of choice in classical compositions in most countries.  But the four 20th- and 21st-century works played by Mogensen, if unlikely to change the general opinion of accordion music, at least show how it can be skillfully incorporated into traditional forms and can become far more emotionally expressive than it is usually considered to be.  Two of the pieces here, Anders Koppel’s Concerto Piccolo (2009) and Martin Lohse’s In Liquid… (2008/2010), were specifically written for Mogensen, and it is easy to see why.  He seems able to make the accordion into something it does not naturally appear to be: an instrument of considerable emotional range, tonal impact and sonic beauty.  Both Koppel and Lohse demand accordion playing that is not only virtuosic but also refined and emotive, and Mogensen delivers it with seeming effortlessness throughout both pieces.  He brings elegance and even charm to the two earlier works here as well: Per Norgård’s Recall (1968/1977) and Ole Schmidt’s Symphonic Fantasy and Allegro (1958), the latter being particularly interesting because it is a wholly traditional sort of display piece, written for an instrument that would not seem to be well-suited to the demands of such a work.  In Mogensen’s hands, though, the accordion is not to be trifled with or taken lightly – it sounds as worthy of being studied and highlighted as other instruments.

      The recorder was once the frequent province of virtuosi, but as the transverse flute supplanted it, it fell into comparative obscurity – from which it never quite emerged except in period-practice performances of older works.  However, it never went entirely out of style, either, and is now undergoing something of a revival: Concerto Incantato by Richard Harvey (born 1953) was written as recently as 2009.  This piece, which receives its world première recording in a thoroughly convincing performance by Michala Petri, for whom it was written, is a five-movement work with spiritual and magical overtones in the movements’ titles: Sortilegio, Natura Morta, Danza Spiriti, Canzone Sacra and Incantesimi.  Petri makes the music flow naturally and entertainingly from start to finish, bringing considerable charm to a work that combines modern sensibilities with the old-fashioned orientation of a Telemann suite.  Sir Malcolm Arnold’s Concerto for Recorder and Orchestra (1988), also written for Petri, is a more-serious piece and sounds more substantial, even though it is much shorter than Harvey’s work (12 minutes vs. 29).  Arnold clearly saw the recorder as continuing to deserve the same solo prominence in the 20th century that it had in the 18th.  Gordon Jacob, however, saw matters differently: his Suite for Recorder and Strings (1957) takes full advantage of the instrument’s lightness and its ability to create a fleet-footed impression, as if its music is about to take wing.  The seven-movement suite, which recalls Telemann even more directly than does Harvey’s work, actually contains more slow-paced movements (four) than quick ones (three).  But far from trying to delve deeply into emotional realms, even in the Lament (Adagio), Jacob keeps everything comparatively light and at times even bubbly, as in the Burlesca alla Rumba and concluding Tarantella.  Petri is an absolutely wonderful advocate for the recorder, with the three pieces here showing off her considerable skill and their composers’ very different talents as well.

      Speaking of talented composers, Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792) was deemed by Haydn to be a genius at the level of Mozart, of whom Kraus was almost an exact contemporary.  The German-born Swedish composer was considered highly innovative and well ahead of his time in the demands he placed on instrumentalists, and those demands are very much in evidence in three viola concertos performed by the Tapiola Sinfonietta with David Aaron Carpenter.  Viola concertos from the 18th century are real rarities, and ones with the level of virtuosity required for these are simply unheard of (and, until now, unheard: these are the works’ première commercial recordings).  Carpenter plays the concertos with style and flair, but without swooping down on the music and making its virtuosic passages sound as if they were written in the 19th century.  Indeed, the organization of these works plants them firmly in Mozart’s time, but the expectations of the soloist show Kraus reaching well beyond what composers expected from viola players in this age – even though many of the composers themselves performed on the instrument.  Most interesting of all is the concerto for viola and cello.  It is tempting to think of it as a precursor of Brahms’ Double Concerto, but of course Brahms did not know the Kraus work (all three of these viola works have only recently been rediscovered).  What Kraus manages to do here is to meld the sounds of viola and cello while giving each an individualized role to play in the concerto, somewhat as Mozart did for violin and viola in his Sinfonia Concertante, K364.  With fine playing by cellist Riitta Pesola complementing Carpenter’s on viola, this concerto makes one wonder what other Kraus gems, or other long-missing examples of 18th-century compositional skill, might remain to be discovered.

      The discovery listeners are intended to make in the new CD called Solo Harp is less of the pieces being played than of the considerable skill of Yolanda Kondonassis, who is indeed a harpist of the highest order.  The recital here is not especially generous in length – 55 minutes – but that may well be enough solo-harp music for listeners to hear in a single sitting, even when the playing is as good as that of Kondonassis.  Many of the works here are well-known, although not in solo-harp versions: a Prelude and Presto by Bach, for example, and Gnossienne No. 3 by Satie.  The longest familiar piece Kondonassis offers is Saint-Saëns’ Fantaisie, Op. 95, but the composer most represented on the CD is Carlos Salzedo (1885-1961), who is heard in four works – including Scintillation, which at 10 minutes is the most-extended of all the pieces performed.  This is perhaps a bit too much Salzedo – he is more interesting in his short Rumba and Bolero than when heard at greater length.  And the sound of the harp, even with all the tonal variation and rhythmic clarity that Kondonassis brings to it, tends to pall after a while, usually more in transcribed works than in ones written originally for the instrument.  Solo Harp gets a (+++) rating: the playing is certainly first-rate, but a listener’s interest in the music is likely to flag no matter how enchanted he or she may be by the sheer technical skill of the performer.

      The new SACD featuring Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan, however, gets a (++++) rating, for here the clear focus on the performer is well-matched with the very considerable interest level of the music she plays.  The Op. 33 Études Tableaux are the best-known pieces here, but the Variations on a Theme of Corelli will be of greatest interest to listeners who know of Rachmaninoff’s skill in the variation form only through his so-often-performed Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  Arghamanyan has a distinctive way with this music: she has all the virtuosity that the pieces require, but she also brings a quiet tenderness, a feeling of empathy, to works that are frequently played simply as surface-level display pieces.  Rachmaninoff is coming in for some reconsideration as a composer, no longer being instantly dismissed as overly Romantic and overblown, and these performances show why: there is beauty here that lies beneath the surface as well as upon it, and the very considerable technical demands of these works seem, in Arghamanyan’s readings, to be at the service of genuine emotional communication that reaches out to listeners very effectively indeed.  PentaTone includes a bonus DVD with the Arghamanyan CD – and although the music on it, consisting of excerpts from the works on the audio recording, is of no particular additional value when accompanied by sometimes-distracting video, the DVD will be of interest to those who would like to see the pianist and hear an extended interview with her, which includes her mentioning that she listens to all sorts of music on her MP3 player, but not to rap..

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