May 01, 2014
(++++) THE KEYBOARDISTS
Bach: Six Partitas from the “Clavier-Übung” I, BWV 825-830. Rafael Puyana, harpsichord. SanCtuS. $39.99 (3 CDs).
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 14 and 27; Concert Rondo in D, K.382. Ingrid Jacoby, piano; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. ICA Classics. $16.99.
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 23 (“Appassionata”), 31 and 32. Claudio Arrau, piano. ICA Classics. $16.99.
York Bowen: 24 Preludes in All Major and Minor Keys; Berceuse in D; Suite No. 2—Barcarolle; Suite No. 4 (“Suite Mignonne”). Cristina Ortiz, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.
Bartók: Fourteen Bagatelles; Nine Little Piano Pieces; Three Piano Pieces, D45—No. 1; Three Piano Pieces, D53—Adagio and Intermezzo; Scherzo, D50; Rhapsody, Op. 1 (shortened version). Jenő Jandó, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
One of the most wonderfully fascinating recordings of Bach’s Partitas BWV 825-830 in decades, Rafael Puyana’s version on the SanCtuS label is a remarkable interpretative and sonic achievement that also stands as a monument to Puyana (1931-2013). Puyana plays these masterpieces on a harpsichord that is itself a masterpiece: a 1740 Hieronymus Albrecht Hass instrument that the performer spent decades attempting to restore, ending up having full restoration done twice before the harpsichord was restored to a glory that has to be heard to be understood. A three-manual harpsichord with features far more common in German instruments than in the better-known French and Flemish ones of its time, the Hass harpsichord is so beautifully decorated that the extensive illustrations of it accompanying this recording are a joy in and of themselves. And the sound! These are analog recordings from about 1985, made in Puyana’s own home in Paris, and they show a performer thoroughly at home in every sense, playing music as if he owns it on an instrument that he does own and in which he obviously and gloriously revels. These are very complicated pieces to interpret, their notation anything but clear to the modern performer – Puyana explains some of the complexities in the liner notes that he himself provided for these recordings. What he has done with the music is exhilarating, bringing forth its amazing dancelike qualities, selecting tempos that are quite justifiable (often on the fast side) and phrasings that make perfect sense based on scholarly studies but that are rarely chosen by modern harpsichordists, much less by the pianists who often play these works. Every single movement of the Partitas is delivered with strength, accuracy, joy and emotional involvement, from the ones that are achingly beautiful to those that feel danceable even some 300 years after their composition in 1731. Fascinatingly, Puyana also includes an appendix of sorts by offering two versions of the concluding Gigue of the final Partita, first playing it with a triplet rhythm that he prefers but that makes the work sound distinctly jazzy – an amazing effect, but one that Puyana admits may be out of keeping with Bach’s own time. He then plays the same movement in more-conservative style, allowing listeners to decide which one they prefer. This is an extraordinary three-CD set in every way, from the remarkable performances to the astonishing sound of the harpsichord to the tremendous beauty of the set’s presentation. It is a deep shame that Puyana did not live to see this superb testimony to his art and dedication released – but it is wonderful, from a listener’s standpoint, to have so heartfelt, beautifully produced and superbly performed a version of this magnificent music.
The piano may be inappropriate for Bach (for all that it is frequently employed in his music), but it was Mozart’s instrument of choice, and a new Ingrid Jacoby recording of Concertos Nos. 14 and 27 displays the instrument to fine effect. Light and limpid, Jacoby’s performances for ICA Classics show understanding and sensitivity, bringing forth both the grandeur and the lightness of No. 14 and the Olympian majesty of No. 27, Mozart’s final work in this form. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner provides excellent support, and the Concert Rondo that rounds out the CD makes for a lovely conclusion that is more than a throwaway encore although less than a full-scale concerto. Another fine ICA Classics release looks farther back in time, to a 1960 performance by Claudio Arrau (1903-1991), one of the giants of 20th-century piano playing and a specialist in the sonatas of Beethoven. This is an analog recording and in monophonic sound, a combination that results in a (+++) rating for most modern listeners – although the performances themselves are certainly at (++++) level. Arrau performs Beethoven consistently, without overplaying his drama, his intensity or his emotionalism. The “Appassionata” sonata here is clear, forthright and beautifully paced, without the swooning that some pianists have tended to bring to it and with a level of Classical-era poise that serves it particularly well amid its undoubted emotional depths. The relatively infrequently played No. 31 gets an expansive, elegant reading here, with a fine sense of Beethoven’s late style and special attention paid to the sonata’s concluding fugue. And No. 32, Beethoven’s last sonata and one of his most influential, has tremendous heft and intensity here, from the strength of its first movement through the jazzlike elements in its second that make the work so incredibly forward-looking. No, the recording is not ideal and the sound is not up to modern standards – although it is more than satisfactory except for insistent audiophiles. Yet Arrau’s way with Beethoven is so convincing, his handling of this music so satisfying, that this CD is worth owning at least as a supplement to more-modern recordings, if not necessarily as a first choice.
The first choice for the fascinating 24 Preludes by British composer York Bowen (1884-1961) is likely to be the new (++++) Cristina Ortiz performance on the Grand Piano label. Bowen was a very fine pianist (as well as an organist, conductor, violist and French horn player), and his 24 Preludes in All Major and Minor Keys, Op. 102 (1938, but not published until 1950) place him directly in Bach’s line in their exploration of tonality while showing his generally Romantic approach to harmony and to piano style. This is a difficult and often very complex work, hard for a pianist to sustain technically throughout its more-than-50-minute length while also allowing its emotional expressiveness to come through. Ortiz handles the music with great understanding and substantial technical skill, not glossing over its difficulties but also not dwelling on them, allowing its emotional expression plenty of free flow and letting its complexities unfold at a natural pace. Bowen’s music is not particularly well known, but this work certainly shows that it deserves to be held in high regard. The other pieces on the CD are essentially fillers, and all show Bowen to be a highly skilled composer for the piano, capable of eliciting emotion beyond the technical requirements of the music and, particularly in the “Suite Mignonne,” creating works with genuine charm.
“Charm” is not the first word that will occur to listeners who hear the seventh volume in the Naxos series of Bartók’s piano music with the ever-reliable Jenő Jandó. The most-significant work here, Fourteen Bagatelles, dates to 1908 but sounds much later: the structure and harmonies are forward-looking and the work as a whole comes off as an experiment in technique and communication – one that will seem rather distant from the composer’s other music for listeners unfamiliar with Bartók’s late style, which this work prefigures and anticipates. It is difficult music to play and not particularly easy to listen to, either, and it was decidedly ahead of its time in Bartók’s oeuvre, as is clear from listening to the work that follows it here: Nine Little Piano Pieces, which date to 1926 and are nowhere near as complex or complicated. They are in fact neoclassical compositions with one foot kept rather lightly in the Baroque era, for all that their technique and technical demands fit clearly into the time period in which Bartók composed them. Jandó, always reliable and often quite distinguished in performing Bartók’s music, handles the contrasting styles of the Fourteen Bagatelles and Nine Little Piano Pieces very well indeed, not overdoing or shortchanging either work and giving listeners plenty of chances to contrast them. A number of shorter works and a shortened version of Bartók’s Op. 1 Rhapsody round out a well-played (++++) CD filled with interesting contrasts – a worthy entry in this series, and one that collectors looking for a full complement of Bartók’s piano music are sure to relish.