January 31, 2013

(++++) TWENTIETH-CENTURY PIANO BYWAYS


Alberto Ginastera: The Three Piano Concertos. Barbara Nissman, piano; University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Kiesler. Pierian. $18.99.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: Piano Concerto; Worldes Blis. Kathryn Stott, piano; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Peter Maxwell Davies. Naxos. $9.99.

Bartók: Works for Violin and Piano, Volume 2—Sonata for Solo Violin; Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano; Hungarian Folksongs; Hungarian Folk Tunes; Romanian Folk Dances. James Ehnes, violin; Andrew Armstrong, piano. Chandos. $18.99.

      Those who think of the piano in the 20th century as either a vehicle for the last gasp of Romanticism (Rachmaninoff) or as an instrument whose percussive qualities were brought to the fore at the expense of its melodic and expressive ones (Cage) will have their horizons broadened by several new releases that explore less-familiar 20th-century piano repertoire – and do so very well indeed. Barbara Nissman, who knew and worked directly with Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983), has long been an unexcelled interpreter of his piano music, and she has now recorded all three of his concertos on a CD that includes two world premières: of Ginastera’s early Concierto Argentino and of his vast and very difficult Second Concerto in its original version.  Ginastera was always fond of display, sometimes over-fond of it for its own sake, but the youthful ebullience of Concierto Argentino, which dates to 1935, is immediately appealing, and Nissman makes it her own from start to finish, contrasting its poetic and folklike elements with its sections of sheer bravura. It is a pleasant rather than profound work, and Nissman gives the impression of thoroughly enjoying performing it. The Concerto No. 1 (1961), the only Ginastera piano concerto with which most audiences are even slightly familiar, also gets a bang-up reading here: Nissman does not hesitate to embrace the work’s many excesses, from a Scherzo labeled “hallucinatory” to a slow movement that is not merely Adagio but “Adagissimo.”  All four movements here partake of individuality of construction and expression, and in fact they do not tie together especially well – but Nissman understands the work as a whole and provides a surprisingly unified performance. As for Concerto No. 2, Nissman restores the one-hand Scherzo to Ginastera’s intended right hand (not the left, as it is generally played) and ends the piece as Ginastera planned (not as Hilde Somer, who co-commissioned the work and was its first performer, ended it, with four additional measures that she added).  This is a big, sprawling piece, partly a homage to Beethoven and partly pure Ginastera. It is difficult to hear as well as to play, impressive rather than immediately appealing, but it repays repeated listenings, especially in Nissman’s elegant and knowing interpretation. Throughout the CD, Nissman is very ably abetted by the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra under Kenneth Kiesler. This is a student orchestra, yes, but many of these students are on the cusp of professional musical careers, and it shows in their absolute dedication to the music and their remarkable responsiveness to its considerable difficulties.  This CD is a significant accomplishment on all levels.

      The Naxos CD of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Piano Concerto is a re-release of a Collins Classics disc from 1998 that captured the concerto not long after its 1997 debut – and with soloist Kathryn Stott, for whom the work was written.  If Ginastera’s piano concertos tend to be thorny, Davies’ concerto is appealingly direct and much easier to hear, with a fresh directness that nicely complements episodes of youthful enthusiasm that flow surprisingly easily from a composer then in his 60s (Davies was born in 1934).  The expansive and multifaceted first movement is succeeded by two more-direct ones, with Stott playing them all with attentiveness and intelligence, and Davies himself leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with skill and very fine attention to the details of orchestration that he, after all, knows inside-out.  Also on this CD is a re-release of Davies conducting Worldes Blis, which he wrote from 1966-69 as a combination of medieval plainchant with 20th-century expressionism. Despite its partial foundation in the vocal sphere, this is a wholly orchestral work, its six continuous movements adding up to symphonic length although the work has more the character of a neo-Baroque suite (the slow and very expansive first movement takes up nearly half its total length, a weighting more or less along the lines of what a Baroque Ouverture would receive). Originally released by Collins Classics in 1993, this is a well-recorded performance in which Davies shows himself an adept handler of a fine orchestra where his own music is concerned; and the music itself has a considerable degree of emotional communicativeness.

      Worldes Blis is not a piano work, and neither is the first and most-intriguing piece presented on the second CD of Bartók’s violin-and-piano music by James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong. That is the Sonata for Solo Violin of 1944, which – like Davies’ Worldes Blis – harks back to earlier times, being highly influenced by Bach’s solo-violin works. This is Bartók’s final completed work, and it is dense and difficult, quite different from the contemporaneous Concerto for Orchestra, making significant demands on performer and listener alike. Although not particularly melodious, or even tonal, it is tightly structured and carries the listener along effectively when it is played as well as Ehnes plays it – he has a natural affinity for Bartók’s music and displays it adeptly again and again in this work and others. The Sonata for Solo Violin employs a full range of violin techniques as well as a full range of compositional ones, and emerges as a major, if little-known, work within Bartók’s oeuvre. The rest of the works on this excellent CD do include piano, with the Third Sonata of 1903 presenting a particularly happy melding of Bartók’s emerging personal style with various throwbacks to an earlier, Brahmsian sensibility. Ehnes is perfectly complemented here by Armstrong, the two performers taking the lead in the sonata at different times with a collaborative feel that seems effortless even though the manifest difficulties of the music mean that cannot be the case. The three remaining pieces here are lighter and far more influenced by folk music – of which, in fact, they are arrangements. Indeed, they are arrangements of arrangements, Hungarian Folksongs and Hungarian Folk Tunes being taken from Bartók’s For Children, while Romanian Folk Dances transcribes a work of the same name that Bartók wrote for solo piano. These three encore-like, suite-like pieces show Bartók’s in-depth attention to folk music while also showcasing the ability of Ehnes and Armstrong to lighten up considerably after the complexities, for violin and piano alike, of the two sonatas that occupy most of the CD.

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