February 13, 2014
(++++) SPARKLING PIANISM
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Natasha Paremski, piano; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fabien Gabel. RPO. $16.99.
Stravinsky: Solo Piano Works. Jenny Lin, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
An Amadeus Affair: Music for Two Pianists by Mozart, Busoni, Liszt, and Anderson & Roe. Anderson & Roe Piano Duo (Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe). Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
It doesn’t get any better than this: tremendously talented young pianists bringing musicianship, flair and quite extraordinary technical prowess to bear on repertoire ranging from the highly familiar to the little-known to works of their own creation. Natasha Paremski’s pairing of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff would seem on the face of it to be worthy mostly of a yawn, there being so many outstanding performances of both works available – but it takes only about 30 seconds of listening to realize just how special this CD is. The Russian-American Paremski has quite an extraordinary feel for this quintessentially Russian music, and she has so much technique that she can focus on extracting the pieces’ emotional connections without sounding as if she is working hard on surmounting their technical complexities. Her Tchaikovsky First is fluid, involving, expansive and focused more on lyricism than display – a more-intimate version of this concerto than most pianists offer, although Paremski has no problem delivering fireworks in the finale. Fabien Gabel and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra provide warm, flowing accompaniment that belies the fact that they have performed this concerto innumerable times – here it sounds freshly forthright, without a hint of the formulaic treatment that orchestras sometimes give it. And orchestra and soloist are even better, even more convincing, in Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations, which here receive a quite wonderfully musicianly treatment instead of sounding like a mere display piece – although the “display” elements certainly come through forcefully as well. Paremski and Gabel seem to have agreed that this work deserves to be handled with all the serious sumptuousness of the composers’ piano concertos – all of which were written earlier than these variations were. As a result, although the variations flow seamlessly from start to finish, each gets highly individualized treatment that pays especially large dividends in the 18th and 19th variations, the latter offered with gorgeous expansiveness that is wholly unapologetic for the composer’s swooning Romantic temperament. The contrast between the slower variations and the ones that sparkle as the work comes to an end is especially clear here, with Paremski handling the final variation with absolutely bravura flair and then tossing off the intended-to-be-tossed-off final notes so amusingly that listeners will be left smiling, if not laughing outright. Far too many performances of standard-repertoire works come across as dutiful rather than deeply involving. This one shows what newer top-notch artists can do with the familiar: make it new and make it splendid.
Matters are somewhat lower-key (no pun intended) but no less intriguing in Jenny Lin’s handling of Stravinsky’s solo piano music, which is by no means as well-known as it deserves to be. Piano versions of Stravinsky’s orchestral works have been on something of a roll lately – the striking five-piano version of The Rite of Spring performed by the 5 Browns comes immediately to mind – and one such piano transcription appears here: Guido Agosti’s rendition of the Danse infernale, Berceuse and Finale from The Firebird, a fascinating and fireworks-filled invitation to display one’s virtuosity, which Lin does with admirable abandon. But Lin is equally capable of restraint, and that is what serves her well in much of the other music on this Steinway & Sons disc. Like his orchestral works, Stravinsky’s pieces for solo piano appear in various styles and require different handling according to whether they are more traditional in orientation (the four Etudes of 1908), neoclassical (the Piano Sonata of 1924), lighthearted and angular (Circus Polka of 1942) or late and unfinished (Two Sketches of a Sonata, together lasting less than one minute and dating to 1966-67). What Lin does so well here is plumb the character of each work, delving into what it is designed to communicate and pulling out that expressiveness with fine attention to pianistic detail and to Stravinsky’s frequently changing compositional style. Aside from the sonata and Agosti’s Firebird arrangement, the only work here lasting more than 10 minutes is the four-movement Serenade in A, but even the smaller pieces and out-and-out trifles get knowing, elegant handling at Lin’s, well, hands. Here are a one-minute Polka, a two-minute Valse (both from Trois Pièces Facile and arranged for two hands by Soulima Stravinsky), and a three-minute Tango, plus a nicely polished Ragtime for 11 Instruments (arranged by the composer) and Piano-Rag-Music. Also offered is Stravinsky’s deliberately simple arrangement of the Prologue to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, which in 90 seconds sets the basic tone of that gloomy and sprawling opera. All the works show Stravinsky’s ear for detail and fine workmanship, and all Lin’s performances display involvement, sensitivity and a thorough understanding of the music.
Equally impressive but much harder to classify, the Steinway & Sons CD entitled An Amadeus Affair is simply – or not so simply – a celebration of the sheer delight of music-making, and of Mozart and his influence. Duo pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe really go to town with some works by composers of the past and some they have created themselves. The centerpiece of the disc is Mozart’s own Sonata for Two Pianos in D, K. 448, which here gets a firmly rooted, well-paced and knowing performance that does not veer too far into virtuosity for its own sake. Oh no – that is reserved for Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan, one of that composer’s wonderful operatic mashups designed both to familiarize audiences of his time with works they may not have known well and to show the piano as an orchestra in miniature and the pianist as its absolute ruler. The contrast between Mozart’s work and Liszt’s is extreme, yet Liszt’s piece comes across as a fond tribute and not merely a surface-level bit of flippancy. It is in fact a substantial work in its own right, and Anderson and Roe certainly give it its due. They bring equal skill and sensitivity to Busoni’s Duettino concertante, which is based on the finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19, K. 459. But the Mozart, Liszt and Busoni works are scarcely the only attractions here: Anderson and Roe turn this disc into a showpiece for themselves as arrangers and composers, not just interpreters. Two short arrangements of Mozart works are very well put together and very nicely performed: Soave sia il vento from Così fan tutte and the Chorale Prelude from The Magic Flute. Even more interesting, though, are two pieces composed by the duo pianists using Mozart’s music as a jumping-off point, much as Liszt did. One is an extended and very impressive Grand Scherzo based on the finale of the first act of Così, and the other is an absolutely delightful encore called Ragtime alla Turca, based on the famous third movement of the piano sonata K. 331. The wit and playfulness of Mozart are the primary elements on display here, both in the interpretations and in the performers’ arrangements and compositions: this is Mozart for fun, despite all the seriousness that Liszt and Busoni brought to Mozart’s music and the equal seriousness with which Mozart himself wrote it – although it is worth remembering that the composer was known in his own lifetime for somewhat crude humor and a certain level of immaturity. There is nothing at all crude about what Anderson and Roe deliver here: everything is polished to a fine sheen and delivered with panache. But it all twinkles nevertheless.