November 14, 2013


Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3; Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 2. Lang Lang, piano; Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Sony. $15.99.

Stravinsky: Violin Concerto; Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Naïve. $16.99.

Bach: Violin Concertos in A minor and E; Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor; Sonatas Nos. 3 and 4 for Harpsichord and Violin. Janine Jansen, violin; Ramón Ortega Quero, oboe; Jan Jansen, harpsichord. Decca. $15.99.

Grieg: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume III—Concert Overture “In Autumn”; Lyric Suite; Klokkeklang; Old Norwegian Melody with Variations; Three Orchestral Pieces from “Sigurd Jorsalfar.” WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Eivind Aadland. Audite. $19.99 (SACD).

Schumann: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume I—Symphony No. 1; Overture, Scherzo and Finale; Symphony in D minor (original version, 1841). WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Heinz Holliger. Audite. $18.99.

     Lang Lang’s tendency to pound the piano into submission has thankfully diminished somewhat in recent years – a particularly good thing when he performs concertos such as the Prokofiev Third and Bartók Second. These two works are rarely juxtaposed in recordings, which makes the Sony CD featuring the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle extra-special. In truth, the performances are special, too. Lang Lang is particularly impressive in the Bartók, where he shows a somewhat uncharacteristically light touch coupled with a sensitivity to rhythms and phrases – a combination leading to a more musically mature performance than this consummate showman usually delivers. Perhaps Rattle gets much of the credit – he certainly gets some of it for the wonderful way he brings forth all the colors of which the Berlin Philharmonic is capable (and there are a lot of them). The brass tone of the orchestra is, as always, exceptional, and the sheer vitality that Rattle obtains from the orchestra makes for a performance both exciting and musicianly. The Prokofiev is top-notch, too, but not as surprising: it is the sort of concerto that fits Lang Lang’s style well, and indeed the pianist has said it is his personal favorite among Prokofiev’s five concertos. This is scarcely unexpected: the Prokofiev Third is a display piece, communicating more flashiness than depth, and Lang Lang makes no attempt to extract anything particularly profound from it. The result is a highly exciting reading that is not in any way revelatory: all is on the surface. But it is a tremendously polished surface and clearly one with which Rattle, usually a more-sensitive conductor, is in this case quite happy: he goes along with Lang Lang’s approach and actually emphasizes elements of it by playing up some of the orchestra’s more-raucous contributions. Both for repertoire and for the sheer skill of the performance by pianist and orchestra alike, this is a highly successful and very engaging disc.

     Prokofiev is paired with Stravinsky on a more moderate, less over-the-top Naïve CD featuring violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the London Philharmonic Orchestra led by Vladimir Jurowski. The Stravinsky Violin Concerto and the Prokofiev Second here get thoughtful, carefully assembled performances in which soloist and orchestra cooperate throughout rather than seeming at times to be competing to outdo each other (as is the case with Lang Lang and Rattle). There is certainly no lack of excitement here – quite the opposite – but there is a sense that the music comes first and the performers are at its service. The sensitivity of the Prokofiev Second is particularly welcome: Kopatchinskaja gives it time to breathe in the first two movements and only lets loose with stirring intensity in the finale. As for the Stravinsky, its operatic elements come to the fore here and it emerges as a display piece, yes, but not one in which the violinist is all that matters: what Stravinsky puts on display is his own thinking, his own unusual design for the work, and his own sense that a concerto can be more than a back-and-forth discussion-cum-competition between single instrument and ensemble. These are subtler performances than those of Lang Lang and Rattle, neither better nor worse but different in their emphasis and the way they handle the conflict and cooperation between soloist and orchestra. Jurowski seems somewhat more cerebral and controlled here than Rattle does when working with Lang Lang, and this is all to the good for the music, which comes across as a success both in what it communicates and in how.

     The concertos of Bach communicate very differently, and Janine Jansen brings a suitably light touch and elegant fingerings to them on a new Decca CD. The all-Bach disc contains a particularly good A minor concerto (BWV 1041), a bit more emotional than the work usually is but certainly nowhere in Romantic territory. The concerto in E (BWV 1042) is technically impressive but seems a touch more ordinary – the interpretation does not go anywhere new, although it treads familiar territory with considerable grace. The violin-and-oboe concerto, a reconstruction that is increasingly finding favor with performers and audiences alike, has considerable warmth (again, within appropriate Baroque confines) and some lovely interplay between the solo instruments. And the two harpsichord sonatas fill out the disc very nicely indeed: each is as long as each of the concertos, and each sonata is as filled with musical ideas worked through with an equal amount of integrity and spirit. But the sparseness of line in the sonatas, with only two instruments rather than a chamber ensemble, lets Jansen bring out the melodic elements and contrapuntal elegance of the works’ construction even more clearly than in the concertos. There is a sense of friendliness and intimate cooperation among the musicians on this recording, which would be clear from the performances even if listeners did not know that harpsichordist Jan Jansen is Janine Jansen’s father and cellist Maarten Jansen is her brother. Chamber works always have considerable intimacy when well played, and the ones here have more than most, thanks partly to Jansen’s wonderful violin tone (she plays a 1727 Stradivarius) and partly to the fresh view of the music that all the performers bring to these readings.

     The first-rate Grieg series on Audite is filled with freshness as well. Eivind Aadland again and again offers interpretations of familiar music that make the works seem new, no matter how often a listener has heard them before. The third volume of the series is a highly attractive mixture of the well-known with some definite rarities. Aadland conducts with great sensitivity and a particularly sure grasp of the music’s context and scope. The pieces here are mostly transcriptions and mostly play to Grieg’s greatest strength, the creation of miniatures. Only one work, the Concert Overture “In Autumn,” lasts more than 10 minutes as an integrated piece. Klokkeklang (“Bell Ringing”) is only a five-minute work, and the three other pieces on this very well-recorded SACD are more extended only because they are collections of small component parts: the very attractive Old Norwegian Melody with Variations, for example, lasts nearly 23 minutes only because it includes 15 separate elements. The best-known works here, Lyric Suite and Three Orchestral Pieces from “Sigurd Jorsalfar,” are also collections of short movements, each of which is a little gem in itself and each of which, when added to the others, produces a totality that (especially in the Lyric Suite) is equal to more than the sum of its parts. The consistency of the playing of the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln is one of the many pleasures of this recording and of this ongoing series, which is giving listeners a chance to hear Grieg as a far more varied and wide-ranging composer than he appears to be to people who know only the Piano Concerto and excerpts from Peer Gynt.

     The WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln is also featured on an Audite CD that marks the start of another series that promises to be a very fine one indeed. This one will present the complete symphonic works of Schumann as conducted by a very knowledgeable and intelligent conductor, Heinz Holliger. There are a number of rarities in Schumann’s orchestral music, and one of them turns up with two familiar pieces on this first recording. The rarity is the Symphony in D minor, the work that we know today as the very popular Symphony No. 4 – in a later version, in which many orchestral parts are doubled and the overall texture of the music is made heavier and muddier. The work’s popularity in that later version is testimony to the quality of the ideas and the excellence of the unusual structure, which straddles the line between single-movement and multi-movement form. And there is no question that the well-known version is a solid and weighty work. But the earlier one, which is very rarely performed, is significantly lighter, more transparent, and clearer in its presentation of themes and its balance among orchestral sections. The actual music changes very little between the two versions, but the effect of the symphony changes dramatically, as Holliger’s fine performance makes very clear indeed. The other two symphonic works here are the ever-popular “Spring” symphony, which gets a nicely balanced and bright reading in which the orchestra’s singing qualities are particularly prominent, and the curious Overture, Scherzo and Finale, an almost-symphony in which each movement could stand alone but in which the three together make up a particularly lighthearted and bright work (because of the lack of a slow movement) that almost sounds like theater music. Holliger’s well-thought-out, well-put-together performances bode well for this Audite series, and if the mix here of popular and less-known works continues in future volumes, this group of releases – like the Grieg series – will be a notable one indeed.

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