January 16, 2014
(++++) QUINTESSENTIAL ROMANTICS
Idil Biret Solo Edition, Volume 7: Schumann—Papillons; Carnaval; Arabeske; Waldszenen. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.
Rubinstein: Symphony No. 6; Don Quixote. Philharmonia Hungarica conducted by Gilbert Varga (Symphony); Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michael Halász (Don Quixote). Naxos. $9.99.
The “Solo Edition” releases from IBA, featuring recent performances by Turkish pianist Idil Biret, have turned into an ongoing celebration of two of her favorite composers, Liszt and Schumann. The first three “Solo Edition” releases featured Liszt works, the second set of three featured Schumann, and now the seventh CD is also devoted to Schumann. And “devoted” is exactly the right word, because Biret plays this music with quite exceptional understanding and devotion. Aside from Arabeske (1839), a pleasantly lyrical rondo that Biret handles with finesse and gentleness, all the works on the new CD are in multiple sections – giving the pianist plenty of opportunities to highlight not only harmonic and rhythmic contrasts but also emotional ones, the heart of Romanticism. The early Papillons (1831) incorporates still-earlier material in its 12 short sections, which are nominally program music but which simply come across as nicely contrasted dance trifles – the whole handled by Biret with suitable delicacy and without overstating the music’s pleasant but rather constricted emotional palette. There is more meat to Carnaval (1835), for all that its subject is overtly lighthearted. The work’s 21 sections include some that are self-referential (“Florestan” and “Eusebius,” pen names used by Schumann in his music criticism), some that reflect other musicians (“Chopin” and “Paganini,” the latter unsurprisingly requiring considerable virtuosity), and some that bespeak figures from the commedia dell’arte (“Pierrot,” “Arlequin,” “Pantalon et Colombine”). The work is designated sur quatre notes, the notes representing Schumann himself and the town of Asch, and it looks ahead to his later relationship with Clara Wieck in a section called “Chiarina.” The challenge in Carnaval is to give each character piece individuation while holding the whole work together through recognition of its four-note structural underpinning. Biret makes the whole of Carnaval flow naturally and with an apparent simplicity that belies the structural care with which Schumann assembled it. Carnaval is fun to hear, as one would expect of a piece whose title refers to the masked balls at carnival time; but it is far from trivial, and Biret understands this and makes it clear through her carefully controlled performance. She carefully manages Waldszenen (1848-49) as well, giving each of its nine sections its own color and characteristics. Several of these woodland scenes approach the level of miniature tone poems, notably Verufene Stelle (“Haunted Place”) and the concluding Abschied (“Farewell”). Biret is sensitive to the nuances of all the pieces and lets them flow naturally through their different moods, producing a wholly satisfying, suitably atmospheric performance that shows yet again just how thoroughly in tune she is with Schumann’s piano music.
There is considerable atmosphere as well in Anton Rubinstein’s final symphony, No. 6 (1886) – especially in its first and second movements, whose drama approaches the operatic, with the second-movement Moderato assai scarcely providing significant respite from the initial Moderato con moto. Rubinstein’s Romanticism was deemed rather stultifying, especially by the composers who came afterwards, and he himself was not always sure where he fit within 19th-century composition circles – he produced both programmatic works and “pure music” (this symphony is of the latter type), but tended to lack the intensity and level of commitment of composers such as Brahms, of whom Rubinstein was not particularly fond. The Sixth Symphony actually has three movements containing the word “Moderato,” the finale being marked Moderato assai, and this helps show why Rubinstein’s music did not have the staying power of that of some of his contemporaries. He seemed unwilling to take a strong, personalized stance at a time when Romanticism led to expectations that serious composers would delve deeply into themselves in producing their works. The Sixth Symphony is certainly well-made, its third movement (a Scherzo in all but name: it is marked Allegro vivace) being particularly propulsive. But the work as a whole does not stay strongly with listeners after it is over. It is coupled on this (+++) Naxos CD with Don Quixote (1870), which follows the basic arc of Cervantes’ novel rather closely, although without the wit and orchestral cleverness that Richard Strauss was to bring to the same subject in 1897. Rubinstein called his Don Quixote not a tone poem but a Humoresque for Orchestra, and it is in fact somewhat on the light-hearted side, despite the underlying seriousness of the picaresque novel on which it is based. The performances on this CD – a re-release of readings from 1985 and 1986 that originally appeared on the Marco Polo label – are solid and substantial, although neither Gilbert Varga nor Michael Halász seems particularly entranced with Rubinstein’s music. This is nevertheless a worthwhile release for listeners interested in the work of a composer better known for his extraordinary success as a concert pianist than as a substantial creator of music of lasting value.