June 19, 2014
(++++) CLASSIC THOUGHTS OF NOW AND THEN
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1; Grieg: Piano Concerto. Stewart Goodyear, piano; Czech National Symphony conducted by Stanislav Bogunia. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Grieg: Violin Sonata No. 3; Enescu: Violin Sonata No. 2; Janáček: Violin Sonata. duo526 (Kerry DuWors, violin; Futaba Niekawa, piano). Navona. $16.99.
Strauss: Die Fledermaus; Emperor Waltz; Voices of Spring; Annen-Polka; Neue Pizzicato-Polka; On the Beautiful Blue Danube. Eberhard Waechter, Hilde Gueden, Erich Kunz, Gerhard Stolze, Giuseppe Zampieri, Walter Berry, Peter Klein, Rita Streich, Elfriede Ott, Josef Meinrad, Giuseppe di Stefano; Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Andromeda. $14.99 (3 CDs).
A new generation of top-notch soloists and chamber musicians is making its way steadily through concert and recital halls and onto recordings, and in some cases shining new and intriguing light on even the most well-worn works in the classical repertoire. Thirty-five-year-old Stewart Goodyear, for example, tackles the piano concerto written by 35-year-old Tchaikovsky with more than technique: he brings a tempestuous spirit and firm control of the music to a work that can easily sprawl, providing plenty of fire when it is called for and taking the music at brisk tempos that do not feel rushed because Goodyear allows the music plenty of time to breathe when that is appropriate. Young pianists have built careers on Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto – Van Cliburn is the best-known example – but Goodyear is better known for his Beethoven than for his handling of the Romantic repertoire. And indeed, Goodyear’s sense of structure, his insight into Tchaikovsky’s construction of a well-built edifice despite choices that seemed distinctly odd to the composer’s contemporaries (such as the failure of any opening material from the first movement to reappear later), can be traced to the pianist’s immersion in the inevitable and complex logic of Beethoven’s sonatas. This Steinway & Sons recording is the label’s first with orchestra, and in truth, the orchestra itself is acceptable without being in any way outstanding: Stanislav Bogunia aptly backs Goodyear up but does so with little flash or particular insight, and the Czech National Symphony plays well but without the lushness that one would ideally want in Russian (and, for that matter, Czech) music. Still, the orchestra’s contribution here is more than adequate, if not at the level of the pianist’s. The orchestra handles its part in Grieg’s Piano Concerto well, too, but here again, the limelight is deservedly on Goodyear. This concerto was written earlier than Tchaikovsky’s First (1868 vs. 1875) and by a younger composer: Grieg was just 25 when he finished it. The youthful exuberance of the work, especially in its dancelike finale, often gets short shrift when compared to its broad Nordic themes, but not here. Goodyear does not exactly make the music ebullient – which it is not – but he allows its folklike elements to come strongly to the fore, and his attentiveness to detail (along with the orchestra’s, which is clearer here than in the Tchaikovsky) helps make this both a strong performance and a genuinely interesting one.
Grieg was essentially a miniaturist, as the episodic elements of his Piano Concerto show. His Violin Sonata No. 3 shows his orientation even more clearly. Like the concerto’s finale, this sonata has many dancelike elements, and in fact the work as a whole has something of the feel of an elaborate partnership between the players. First violin leads piano along, then cedes control, then piano takes the lead, then violin follows, and so on – the conversational elements of chamber music are particularly clear here, especially so when the performers choose to bring them out. And that is just what Kerry DuWors and Futaba Niekawa do: performing under the name “duo526,” they explore the music as partners in a nuanced reading that accepts and heightens the folk-music elements used by Grieg here, as in the Piano Concerto, and at the same time they allow the chamber work’s lyrical flow to carry listeners along effectively. The other pieces on this new Navona CD get equally strong performances. Like the Grieg, both the Enescu and the Janáček include folk elements, but each work here uses them for different purposes. If Grieg is lyrical and dancelike, Enescu is melancholy if not actually depressive. Enescu’s harmonies are bolder and more modern in sound, but his emotions are just as much those of the Romantic era, using long-sustained melodies to pull players and listeners alike along through a darker emotional landscape than Grieg’s, for all that both these are minor-key sonatas (Grieg’s in C minor, Enescu’s in F minor). More modern-sounding still is the Janáček Sonata, whose handling of the instruments is at the opposite pole from Grieg’s. Here violin and piano frequently seem to be at cross-purposes, interrupting each other and introducing new material or reacting strongly to what has come before. Taken together, the three sonatas here show three very different approaches to violin-and-piano writing, and one of the most impressive things about the partnering of DuWors and Niekawa is the way they take on these significantly different works with equal effectiveness and understanding. The juxtaposition of Grieg, Enescu and Janáček is an unusual one, but one that works very well indeed in the hands of performers as skilled as these.
There is surely no doubting the skill of the best performers of yesteryear, and even as listeners admire today’s up-and-coming virtuosi, modern digital remastering makes it possible to enjoy performances by some of the truly great names of many decades past. But the digital age also makes some slipshod practices all too easy, and the truly execrable packaging of the Andromeda release of the New Year’s Eve 1960 live performance of Die Fledermaus is a case in point. Every principal in this recording has died, so there is no one in the cast to object to the horrendous presentation of what was obviously a thoroughly charming staging in which Herbert von Karajan, sometimes thought of as a humorless and stereotypically Teutonic conductor, seems thoroughly to enjoy himself in a light, frothy and very well-acted (as well as well-sung) version of Johann Strauss Jr.’s most famous operetta – which, by the way, dates to one year before Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. This remastered mono recording is in fact more a stage play than what we now think of an operetta: these days, dialogue is shortened or even rewritten and music is emphasized, but half a century ago (and, for that matter, in Strauss’ own time), the spoken parts of an operetta were every bit as crucial as the music. Indeed, one reason Strauss’ operettas were by and large unsuccessful – despite their wonderful melodies – was that the libretti were generally poor, which meant audiences were getting only a percentage of what they paid for in a night out at the theater. Today’s listeners get only a percentage of what they pay for in this release, too, despite the very low price for a three-CD set. It is understandable that a budget re-release would contain no libretto. But this one contains no synopsis, either. And no information on the performers. And nothing about the recording except the date. And no timings for any of the tracks! This is beyond unforgivable: it is simply idiotic. It is particularly galling for English-language listeners not to know how long the dialogue sections, which the audience finds thoroughly amusing, are: they often run to 10 minutes. And it is genuinely irritating for listeners to have no information on the “gala sequence” inserted toward the end of Act II, which includes, in addition to orchestral music, Erich Kunz (who plays Frank, the prison warden) singing Vienna’s famous Fiakerlied and guest artist Giuseppe di Stefano (who has no role in the operetta itself) performing the famous Neapolitan song O Sole Mio and Franz Lehár’s lovely Dein ist mein ganzes Herz. There is treasurable beauty here, ruined by awkward, clumsy and uncaring packaging decisions. The five non-operetta works offered as supplements to the stage production were recorded earlier – in Brussels on May 7, 1958 – and their sound is significantly poorer than is that of Die Fledermaus. But they have charms, too, with Hilde Gueden singing the concert-aria form of Voices of Spring and the Wiener Männergesangsverein presenting the choral version of On the Beautiful Blue Danube. There is a great deal of fine music, fine playing and fine acting here, enough to give the release a (+++) rating even though it is presented in a subpar package that is thoroughly unworthy of the material.