February 07, 2013

(++++) UNEXPECTED JUXTAPOSITIONS


Viktor Ullmann: Piano Concerto; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3. Herbert Schuch, piano; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Olari Elis. Oehms. $19.99.

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.23, “Appassionata”; Schumann: Kinderszenen; Thalberg: Grande fantaisie sur des motifs de “Il barbiere di Siviglia”; Liszt: Totentanz. Valentina Lisitsa, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

Songs to Poems of Emily Dickinson: Settings by Aaron Copland, John Duke, Arthur Farwell, Ernst Bacon, Lori Laitman, Richard Pearson-Thomas, Scott Gendel and Lee Hoiby. Julia Faulkner, soprano; Martha Fischer and Lee Hoiby, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

      The towering figure of Beethoven looms so large over classical music that new ways to present his music – or use it to pull in audiences for other music – are constantly being sought.  One popular approach, in the concert hall as well as on CDs, is to pair a well-known Beethoven work with a far-less-known, even unknown, piece by someone else, presumably hoping that people who come for the Beethoven will also be intrigued by the other composition.  This is not a bad idea, really, but it does lead to some peculiar matches, such as the one on a new Oehms CD featuring pianist Herbert Schuch and the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Olari Elis.  The featured work here – well, it is hard to tell which of the two piano concertos is featured. The first piece on the CD is the concerto by Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), a Holocaust victim whose works have mostly been lost: they were unpublished before he was sent to Theresienstadt. Works by Jewish victims of the Holocaust have attracted increasing attention in recent years, and many of them deserve it, including this rather hectic concerto, which has distinctly Mahlerian elements as well as some bows to jazz and considerable use of percussion.  The piece is interesting enough to bear repeated hearings, and Schuch makes a fine advocate for it, hammering away when that is called for and allowing brief forays into lyricism in the few places where Ullmann allows it.  But hearing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 after the Ullmann is a decidedly odd experience. The works have nothing in common beyond being concertos for the piano, and Ullmann’s piece, whatever its strengths, vanishes into insignificance when juxtaposed with Beethoven’s – a fate that Ullmann‘s work really does not deserve.  The Beethoven gets a very warm, lyrical and expansive reading here, which only emphasizes its difference from the tight-knit, very compressed Ullmann concerto.  Beethoven’s drama is quite different from Ullmann’s, more understated and all the more effective for that.  The poise, balance and delicacy of Beethoven – absent in Ullmann – are all the more apparent in Schuch’s elegant reading, in which he is supported just as well by the orchestra as in the 20th-century work.  The result is a disc that is a curiosity more than anything else: it is unlikely to be anyone’s first choice for the Beethoven, which is available in many other very fine performances; and for those who would like to explore Ullmann’s music, it will be a hard sell – a full-price CD for a concerto that lasts just 18 minutes.  The performances here are quite fine, but the audience for the disc is rather hard to figure out.

      The Beethoven-and-others CD from Valentina Lisitsa appears to have a much clearer audience: fans of the Ukrainian pianist (born 1973), who now makes her home in North Carolina. Lisitsa does in fact have considerable technique and considerable talent, as well as a clear willingness to tackle some very difficult music. The specific pieces on this Naxos CD are not as ill-fitting as the concertos by Ullmann and Beethoven, but they are nevertheless different enough so they may give some listeners pause.  Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata gets an expansive, involved and involving reading here, perhaps a touch too intensely Romantic but certainly impressive in its sweep and intensity.  The delicacy of Schumann’s Kinderszenen is presumably intended as an aural contrast, and it does provide that, although the impression Lisitsa gives is that she is a trifle impatient with the work, really preferring to be in more purely virtuosic territory that does not require quite as much subtlety.  That means she is very well suited indeed for the demands of the Thalberg and Liszt display pieces that round out the disc, and indeed a listener will find them to be the highlights of the CD, bursting with intensity and highly attractive (if superficial) pianistic prowess.  The “Appassionata” reading shows that Lisitsa can, when she chooses, convey the depth and nuance of profoundly moving music, but on the basis of this disc, she preferred at the point in her career when she recorded these performances (2008) to move audiences to celebration of her technical and dramatic prowess, of which she certainly has plenty. Here, Beethoven is a means to an end, lending gravitas to a recital that would otherwise be perhaps a touch too much on the surface.

      The settings by eight composers of poems by Emily Dickinson represent a juxtaposition of a different sort.  Aaron Copland’s Twelve Songs of Emily Dickinson, a justifiably renowned work, is not presented in its usual form on this Naxos CD – instead, nine of the Copland settings are scattered among ones by John Duke (1899-1984), Arthur Farwell (1872-1952), Ernst Bacon (1898-1990), Lori Laitman (born 1955), Richard Pearson-Thomas (born 1957), Scott Gendel (born 1977) and pianist/composer Lee Hoiby (1926-2011), whose five settings with himself as pianist were his final recording.  The CD is arranged by topics rather than by composer or chronology of either the poems or the songs: “Poems of Nature,” “Poems of Identity,” “Poems of Love,” “Poems of Death,” “Poems of Immortality,” and The Shining Place (Hoiby’s five settings).  The arrangement is not entirely satisfactory, since the placement of many of Dickinson’s poems in one or another of these categories is frequently rather arbitrary.  And the specific settings are sometimes oddly arranged: Wild Nights! appears three times, twice in “Poems of Love” (in versions by Gendel and Farwell) and once in Hoiby’s sequence.  The disc as a whole has the feeling of a potpourri rather than a carefully organized presentation: all the composers do a good job of setting Dickinson’s words, albeit in very different ways, and soprano Julia Faulkner handles all 27 songs sensitively and with fine vocal form.  But the splitting up of Copland’s settings (and the failure to include all of them as the unified set he intended them to be) and the somewhat arbitrary arrangement of the songs make the CD less effective than it might otherwise be. It gets a (+++) rating for its many fine elements combined with its several less-than-ideal presentation aspects.

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