May 09, 2013
(++++) THE PIANO SPEAKS
Liszt: Piano Transcriptions and Arrangements—Wagner: Prelude und Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde”; Mozart: Reminiscences de Don Juan; Schubert: Fruhlingsnacht; Fruhlingsglaube; Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique. Christopher O’Riley, piano. Oxingale. $13.99 (2 CDs); $19.99 (Blu-ray Disc).
Haydn: Piano Sonatas, Volume 5—Nos.12, 15, 37, 54, 55 and 56. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano. Chandos. $18.99.
Manuel María Ponce: Complete Piano Works, Volume 1. Álvaro Cendoya, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.
Villa-Lobos: Children’s Carnival; Ginastera: Sonata No. 1; Almeida Prado: Islands; Piazzolla: Tango Suite. Tali Morgulis, piano. Delos. $16.99.
Old-fashioned virtuosity is the order of the day in Christopher O’Riley’s new Oxingale recording of some of Liszt’s “orchestra in miniature” works – in which, in truth, the piano sometimes sounds like an orchestra not in miniature but in full force. O’Riley goes for and obtains very big sound from start to finish of this recital, backing off only for the two short Schubert lieder that appear as interludes separating some of the grand-scale works. This is an old-fashioned recording that makes up in sheer excitement what it often lacks in subtlety: O’Riley does not hesitate to pound the keys to make his points, for instance in portions of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique (the piano truly does resound like timpani in the Marche au Supplice) and in Reminiscences de Don Juan, which is simply overwhelming under O’Riley’s hands (and it is hard to believe he has only two of them). The very full recorded sound is never muddy, and listeners will likely feel as if they are only a few feet away from the piano as it proclaims O’Riley’s intensity and prodigious virtuosity throughout these extremely complex and difficult Liszt adaptations. The one work that does not come off quite as well as it might is the Prelude und Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde,” in which O’Riley himself makes modifications to a combination of Liszt’s work and Moritz Moszkowski’s alterations of the Liszt. What is missing here is transcendence: the work’s pathos, even tragedy, comes through clearly enough, and of course its virtuosity does as well, but the overall Wagnerian flavor in which hopeless love leads to transfiguration is missing – O’Riley does not seem to have much patience with that sort of delicacy and nuance, although he is certainly comfortable with the more salon-like beauties of the Schubert miniatures. The Blu-ray version of this recital is designed as a multimedia experience more than a strictly musical one, including landscape scenes, views of water and light and flora, O’Riley himself walking through snow, and other visual elements intended to evoke or complement the composers’ original concepts and Liszt’s interpretations of them. The Liszt adaptations are already a step beyond the original composers’ intentions, and this visualization takes another step beyond them; whether the result is expansion or distraction will be a purely personal matter for each listener or viewer. Incidentally, one thing the two-CD set and Blu-ray production have in common is a timing error: the timings for the Tristan and Don Juan pieces are reversed. Given the care with which these offerings are otherwise assembled, this is a strange oversight.
The pianism is on a far more modest scale – appropriately so – in the fifth volume of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s very well-played survey of Haydn’s sonatas for Chandos. Indeed, Haydn’s sonatas, although scarcely easy to perform, have comparatively modest technical requirements: unlike Mozart, Haydn was not a piano virtuoso. For this reason among others, Haydn’s sonatas tend to pale beside those of Mozart – but their poise, balance and elegance make them well worth rediscovering. This release includes three works in the traditional three movements and three others – Nos. 54, 55 and 56 – in two-movement form, which would make them seem to be sonatinas were it not for the fact that they last as long as their three-movement cousins and are as substantial musically. All six of these pieces are in major keys: No. 12 in A, Nos. 15 and 37 in E, No. 54 in G, No. 55 in B and No. 56 in D. Because Haydn tends to adhere more rigidly to formal sonata structure than Mozart did, Haydn’s piano sonatas can have a certain similarity of sound despite their differences in tonality and the composer’s considerable cleverness in devising and developing his themes. One thing that Bavouzet has done very well in his Haydn recordings, including this one, is to give each sonata as much individual character as possible. The result here is that, although no single sonata stands head-and-shoulders above the others, all six works possess different charms and all present the listener with very attractive sonorities and a level of creative perfection that demonstrates that Haydn, although he is known primarily as a symphonist and for his late, great oratorios, also produced many excellent works for the solo piano.
Haydn works became the foundation of a great deal of Classical-era and later music, and have remained influential to this day. Other foundational composers, far less known, have continuing influence as well. One is Manuel María Ponce (1882-1948), founder of Mexican musical nationalism and as important in that field as Bartók and Kodály were for Hungarian nationalism in the same time frame. Indeed, Ponce was every bit as heavily influenced by folk music as were the two great Hungarians – for all that Ponce studied with Paul Dukas and was therefore firmly grounded in European Romantic sensibilities. The first of the Grand Piano label’s planned eight-volume set of Ponce’s piano music showcases a large number of pieces – 20 in all – including a three-movement Sonatine that is on the scale of a Haydn sonata but has a far more folklike flavor, plus a number of works with the word “Mexican” deliberately used to modify traditional forms. Thus, Álvaro Cendoya here offers two pieces called Preludio mexicano, a Serenata mexicana, a Barcarola mexicana, a Scherzino mexicano and a Scherzino maya, as well as Mazurka a la española, Preludio romántico and so on. None of the works on this (+++) CD is particularly weighty; indeed, most of them come across as pleasant-sounding, slightly exotic salon-music entertainments, an impression abetted by the fact that most come and go in a flash (generally ranging in length from less than a minute to three minutes or so). Ponce did write a number of more-substantial piano pieces, such as Rapsodia Cubana and Rapsodias Mexicanas, and their appearance later in this series should show this influential composer to better effect. This CD is more revelatory of what influenced him than it is of the reasons for his own influence on others.
The four South American works offered by Israeli-American pianist Tali Morgulis on her new Delos CD are longer and in some ways more significant, although none of them is particularly deep. The Brazilian pieces by Villa-Lobos and the less-known Almeida Prado (1943-2010) contrast nicely with the Argentinian ones by Ginastera and Piazzolla, which seem to have somewhat more to say. Ginastera’s sonata is a substantial piece from 1952 that shows both his mastery of classical forms and the originality with which he imbued them. Piazzolla is firmly, even inevitably identified with the tango, and the Tango Suite, arranged for piano by Kyoko Yamamoto, showcases the composer’s skill in taking a highly popular dance form and expanding and stretching it so that it reaches far beyond its origins while remaining recognizable both as a dance and as a work with deep roots in Argentina. The Brazilian pieces, while pleasant enough, are less weighty and more overtly coloristic. Villa-Lobos’ Children’s Carnival (Carnaval das crianças) dates to 1920 and is one of the first works in the composer’s mature style. It is a great deal of fun to hear, imitating at times a mouth organ, children's dances and a harlequinade, and ending with an impression of a carnival parade (it is better known in its later orchestral guise as Momoprecoce). Prado’s Islands (Ilhas) is pleasant and well put together but is more workmanlike than inspired. This is a CD that hovers on the border of a (++++) rating for the quality of Morgulis’ playing and a (+++) for the music on which she lavishes her skill. It is a pleasant disc, certainly, but while the piano speaks quite clearly here, it does not have as much to say as it does when presenting other, more-substantive pieces.