November 01, 2012

(+++) SOLOIST POWER


Chopin: Études, Op. 25; Nocturnes in E-flat, Op. 55, No. 2, in F, Op. 15, No. 1, and in C-sharp minor, Op. Posth.; Grande Valse Brillante; Andante Spinato & Grande Polonaise; Waltz in D-flat, Op. 64, No. 1 (“Minute”); Tristesse. Lang Lang, piano. Sony. $9.99.

Rachel Lee Guthrie: Romantic Works for Solo Piano. Dmitry Tavanets and Karolina Rojahn, piano. Ravello. $14.99.

Osias Wilenski: La Leyenda del Kakuy; Sonata for Solo Violin; Hommage to B.B. for Solo Clarinet; Solo for Solo Bassoon; Improvviso for Solo Piano. Tapestry East conducted by Ovidiu Marinescu; Vit Mužík, violin; Juame Sanchis Carretero, clarinet; Bernardo Verde, bassoon; Osias Wilenski, piano. Navona. $16.99.

Walter Ross: Concertos for Oboe d’Amore, Bassoon, Flute and Guitar, and Oboe and Harp.  Michal Sintal, oboe d’amore; Ramon Mesina, bassoon; M. Turner, flute; Radka Kubrova, guitar; Igor Fabera, oboe; Adriana Antalová, harp; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. Ravello. $16.99.

      Lang Lang’s technical prowess continues to amaze, and it is particularly impressive when put at the service of the op. 25 Études of Chopin, in which brilliant finger work and a certain stylistic detachment combine to excellent effect.  These “studies” are always formidable, and Lang Lang revels in their complexities rather than sounding as if he is trying to overcome them; he is thoroughly at home in the music. Technical brilliance remains his forte, musicality rather less so, although he certainly has no difficulty with the three Nocturnes on this CD, playing them with tenderness and warmth. There are some advantages to hearing Lang Lang on CD: his well-known and sometimes distracting physical movements are absent, and listeners can focus entirely on the music. The Grande Valse Brillante is perhaps a touch more brittle than brilliant here, but the Andante Spinato & Grande Polonaise comes off very well, especially (and somewhat surprisingly) the slow part, to which the pianist brings great beauty and sweetness. The two encores are effective in different ways: the “Minute” waltz is a romp, and Tristesse (in which Lang Lang is joined by Danish singer-songwriter Oh Land) is a touch of pleasant salon music. There is nothing particularly revelatory in the playing on this Sony CD – Lang Lang is not a performer to whom one turns for subtlety or insight – but there is very considerable beauty, and if it is mostly surface-level, it makes for a very attractive surface indeed.

      The pleasures are quite different in the piano music of Rachel Lee Guthrie (born 1979), whose studies in form on a new Ravello CD incorporate some Chopin-style expressiveness (in a Nocturne) as well as other types of emotion, from the Baroque to the modern. Guthrie has absorbed the methods and forms used by Classical, Romantic, Impressionist and other composers and uses them to varying degrees of effectiveness in the 10 works here. Rondo in A Major hues rather closely to earlier models, for example, but while Serenade has the expected level of emotion, Lullaby is more varied in expressiveness than might be expected, and rather less tender. There is a lively and bright – and brief – Waltz here as well, plus a pleasant Romance, a fairly wide-ranging Fantasia, and several pieces whose titles indicate what Guthrie is trying to communicate: Flight of the Hummingbird, In the Woods and Evening Breeze. Some works are played by Dmitry Tavanets, others by Karolina Rojahn, and all sound good. This is not particularly deep music but is also not purely imitative: despite her adoption of many forms favored by earlier composers, Guthrie does have a personal slant to her works.

      So too does Osias Wilenski (born 1933 in Argentina), a pianist as well as composer, whose Improvviso for Solo Piano shows impressive command of the instrument in a very impressive performance by the composer himself.  An award-winning filmmaker as well as composer and performer, Wilenski shows in the music on Navona’s new CD that he can write well and idiomatically not only for piano but also for violin, clarinet and bassoon. The Sonata for Solo Violin is a genuinely interesting work in three movements, requiring both sensitivity and virtuosity and concluding with a finale intriguingly titled “Alla Ludwig van,” whose homage to Beethoven may not be quite what listeners would expect. Hommage to B.B. for Solo Clarinet and Solo for Solo Bassoon are more-straightforward works, pleasant and interesting in their respective sonorities and challenging for the performers. The most extended piece on this CD, though, goes beyond solo works – or, more properly, requires half a dozen soloists to perform together (flute/piccolo, bass clarinet/clarinet, trombone, piano, viola and cello). La Layenda del Kakuy is a seven-movement work drawing on an Argentine legend. The real kakuy is a solitary night bird with a dismal song. The legend is of brother Kakuy and sister Turay – the piece’s first two movements portray them – and of their conflict.  Turay is wicked, so Kakuy ties her to a tree and leaves her there, where she goes mad and becomes a monster that to this day is thought to lure people into ill luck or becoming lost. Wilenski builds through several short movements to two longer, final ones called “The Pursuit” and “The Transformation,” requiring considerable virtuosity and evenness of tone from the members of a chamber group called Tapestry East. The performers deliver satisfyingly, and the work has a pleasantly exotic neo-Romantic feeling to it.

      As intriguing as solo performances and those of small chamber groups can be, ones requiring a soloist to play against and as part of a larger ensemble – that is, concertos – place quite different demands on performers. Four wind-focused concertos by American composer Walter Ross (born 1936) show this quite clearly. Ross has played both French horn and flute professionally (and bass, too); his understanding of wind instruments is clearly shown in music that lies well on them and is challenging to perform but never sounds virtuosic for its own sake. A University of Virginia professor, Ross has little of the dry or academic about his music, which tends to be brightly orchestrated and rhythmically attractive. The flute-and-guitar concerto, the only four-movement piece on Ravello’s new CD (the other concertos have three movements apiece), has particularly felicitous blending and contrast of the two solo voices. The oboe-and-harp concerto, which uses a string orchestra, is structurally the most unusual of these works, with slow outer movements enclosing a bright middle one. The bassoon concerto also uses a string ensemble, and here Ross keeps things light and bright, giving the work as a whole a jolly and rather rustic flavor (the middle movement is marked Allegretto Pastorale). The most songful of the concertos is the one for oboe d’amore, which is primarily graceful, even winsome, rather than highly virtuosic, and which gives the soloist plenty of opportunities to play songfully and with delicacy.  All the solo performers handle their roles well, and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kirk Trevor provides fine accompaniment for pieces in which the soloists remain at center stage throughout, but mainly in the sense of standing forth in front of an interestingly varied background – not in the “competitive” sense more commonly seen in many Romantic and post-Romantic concertos.

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