June 26, 2014
(++++) THE SOLOISTS HAVE IT
Bach: Concerto for Two Violins in D minor; Suite for Violin and Strings in A minor; Geminiani: Concerto grosso in C after Corelli; Concerto grosso in D minor; Schmelzer: Sonata 3 from “Sonatae unarum fidium”; Biber: Partia V from “Harmonia artificioso-ariosa”; Vivaldi: “Summer” from “The Four Seasons.” Jeanne Lamon, violin and conducting Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Tafelmusik Media. $18.99.
Haydn: Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 3 and 4; Johann Peter Salomon: Romanze für Violine und Orchester. Midori Seiler, violin and conducting Concerto Köln. Berlin Classics. $18.99.
Ysaÿe: Sonatas Nos. 1-6 for Solo Violin. Tianwa Yang, violin. Naxos. $9.99.
Paganini: 24 Caprices, Op. 1, arranged for solo flute by Marina Piccinini. Marina Piccinini, flute. Avie. $17.98 (2 CDs)
Night Stories: Nocturnes. Jenny Lin, piano. Hänssler Classic. $18.99.
Norman Lloyd and Peter Mennin: Piano Music. Myron Silberstein, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Splendid solo playing is almost enough reason to own many CDs – but for an incontrovertible recommendation, the music played also has to be worth listening to, not just once but time and time again. Indeed, “time and time again” is the reason for being of the new CD featuring Jeanne Lamon on the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra’s own label: everything on the CD was recorded between 1990 and 2011 and has been released before, mostly on Sony (the Bach A minor suite was an Analekta release). All the music here dates to the Baroque period, but it is nevertheless not music often heard on the same disc, and one decision – to release Vivaldi’s “Summer” without the three accompanying seasons – may strike some listeners as distinctly odd. The reality, though, is that this CD of works chosen by Lamon herself showcases her as both violinist and conductor, and gives listeners a chance to hear just how much variety there is in the Baroque repertoire. The Bach suite (known primarily in its flute version) and concerto (featuring Lamon and Linda Melsted) and the Vivaldi are very well known indeed, and Lamon and the orchestra handle them with the sureness and subtlety of long familiarity. Lamon is particularly adept at a kind of understated virtuosity that fits Baroque music particularly well: the violin parts are often difficult, but they are not there merely for display, and the soloist remains primus inter pares even when taking the lead in the music. This is perhaps clearer in the less-familiar music here, all of which is very well constructed and often requires considerable skill. The two concerti by Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) show excellent contrapuntal command, with the one in C “after Corelli” (who was Geminiani’s teacher) being an effective reworking of the older composer’s original. The Biber work (in which Lamon and Melsted are again featured) shows this composer’s usual strong command of form and harmonic subtlety. And the sonata by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (ca. 1620-1680) is poised and pleasantly balanced among the instruments. What this disc shows is that Baroque-style virtuosity requires the ability to play as part of an ensemble as well as “fronting” a larger group – an approach that Lamon has down pat.
The three surviving Haydn violin concertos (a fourth is lost) are not especially demanding of the soloist: No. 4 is the least so, followed by No. 1 and No. 3, but even No. 3 does not require very much virtuosic intensity. The challenge of these concertos is to play them without overdoing them or making them seem to be more difficult or soloistic than they in fact are. This requires the soloist to assume a posture somewhat akin to that of Lamon in Baroque works, although Haydn’s style is more advanced and makes considerably more use of effects such as double-stopping. Midori Seiler – who, like Lamon, serves as both soloist and ensemble director on her new CD – manages to restrain her considerable ability to focus attention on her playing, handling Haydn’s style well and not overdoing her role in these relatively modest works. The result is a Berlin Classics CD that is very well played and quite nicely recorded, showcasing the music more than the soloist – even as it gives listeners the treat of hearing some less-often-performed Haydn interpreted by a very fine solo violinist and a first-rate period-instrument ensemble that brings considerable charm as well as a high level of understanding to the music. And the CD has a fascinating bonus in the form of a romance by Johann Peter Salomon (1745-1815), the impresario who brought Haydn to London and will always be associated with the great symphonies that Haydn wrote for that city. Salomon was a composer, violinist and conductor as well, and clearly had some talent in composition, on the basis of the brief work heard here. The piece has charm and balance and fits nicely into the music of its time – it is nothing outstanding, but is quite pleasant and well-constructed.
Far more virtuosic in the modern sense, and fascinatingly constructed to reflect the styles of their six dedicatees, the Sonatas for Solo Violin by Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) are beautifully performed by Tianwa Yang on a new Naxos CD. There are ways in which these works look back all the way to the Baroque: No. 1, for instance, directly reflects the first of Bach’s solo-violin sonatas, while No. 2 quotes the beginning of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for Solo Violin. Indeed, elements of Bach are pervasive in this set; but the sensibilities of these works are very much of the Romantic and post-Romantic era, and often reflect concerns that Ysaÿe shared with other composers – Sonata No. 2, for instance, makes much use of the Dies irae theme that obsessed Rachmaninoff. This sonata is dedicated to Jacques Thibaud. No. 1 is dedicated to Joseph Szigeti, No. 3 to George Enescu, No. 4 to Fritz Kreisler, No. 5 to Mathieu Crickboom, and No. 6 to Manuel Quiroga (who never played the work in public). The last two dedicatees are less known today than the others, and Enescu is nowadays familiar as a composer rather than a violinist. So the extent to which Ysaÿe’s careful craftsmanship accurately reflects the styles of his contemporary virtuosi may not be immediately apparent to modern listeners. What is apparent is that these sonatas are written in very different forms: Nos. 1 and 2 in four movements, No. 4 in three, No. 5 in two, and Nos. 3 and 6 in one. And the works sound different, too – in fact, collectively they use the solo violin in an extremely wide variety of ways, showcasing the instrument’s capabilities to quite a considerable extent. Wang is the equal of all this music, whether in dancelike sections or in speedy runs that take the violin to its highest register; whether in the expressive ballade of No. 3 or the chromatic habanera of No. 6. Her playing is fluid, technically proficient, musically knowing and altogether winning. The Ysaÿe sonatas stand, nearly a century after they were composed in 1923, as monuments to seven great violinists – the seventh being their composer. In Wang’s performances, they sing at the highest level.
The works that in a sense introduced the modern concept of superb violin virtuosity – Paganini’s 24 Caprices, Op. 1, published in 1819 – have ever since remained at the summit of difficulty for their instrument. And not only for the violin: some or all of these works have been transcribed, transmuted, or become the basis for other music of all sorts, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini being one of the most famous examples. It is fair to say, though, that they have never had an arrangement quite like the one from Marina Piccinini: she transcribes them all for solo flute. Piccinini is an artist who pushes boundaries – she has recorded Bach’s Flute Sonatas with a guitar duo, for example – and here she pushes them very far indeed. These flute arrangements are very strange indeed for anyone familiar with the music: it takes several hearings to absorb them without constantly comparing them with the violin originals pacing along in the back of one’s mind. Once accepted, they are surprisingly effective, intelligently and resourcefully prepared and respectful not only of the musical notes but also of the emotional expressiveness that underlies the enormous technical requirements. Intonation is a major issue for violinists essaying these works; not so for a flautist, and this is an advantage. On the other hand, violinists need not worry about breath control and depth of sound, as flautists must. Piccinini surmounts the technical complexities of the music with great flexibility and understanding, and her creativity and fluency are admirable throughout. Calling this two-CD Avie release a tour de force is almost understating the case. And yet there is something missing here, something evanescent and difficult to define, but nevertheless quite real. It is not technical: Piccinini’s solutions to the violin’s double stops, for example, are uniformly elegant and thoughtful (although not all elements of violin playing translate to the flute: the tremolo under a tune in Caprice No. 6, for example, cannot be duplicated). What is missing in this recording is a sense of danger. Paganini was a showman – think, for example, of his scordatura tuning requirement for the solo violin in his first concerto, which would be unplayable with standard tuning. Paganini built into the 24 Caprices place after place where even the best violinist must almost fail, must come close to missing notes or phrasing, just as the best high-wire walkers must almost fall, or seem to, in order to give the audience a frisson of terror. It is in the conquering of these numerous instances that these caprices attain the sense of visceral excitement, of outright danger, that they possess even when played by the greatest virtuosi. And it is precisely that sense of danger that is missing in Piccinini’s recording, a consequence of the very excellence and care that make her adaptation so fascinating in the first place. The result is a performance that astonishes on many levels and deserves its (++++) rating, but that is unlikely to have the sheer staying power of the best violin versions of Paganini’s enormously challenging music.
Violin virtuosity, or flute virtuosity for that matter, are certainly not the only types that can draw listeners who want to hear first-rate performances: solo piano can be every bit as thrilling and inspiring. But remember that top-quality playing is not enough to give a CD lasting value if the music itself is of lesser quality. This is the issue affecting a Hänssler Classic CD entitled Night Stories: Nocturnes and featuring Jenny Lin. Lin’s pianism is excellent, and the disc is clearly intended for her fans and fans of top-quality piano performances in general. Its title also makes it clear that the CD offers night music – more than an hour of it, in fact, in 15 snippets. There is nothing to fault here in Lin’s performances or the quality of the recording, but the music itself is another matter. Some of it is wonderful, if expected to the point of cliché in a CD with this title: Debussy’s Clair de Lune, two Chopin Nocturnes (Nos. 1 and 13), Liszt’s Nocturne No. 3 (Liebestraum). Other works are pulled out of context: Schumann’s In die Nacht from Fantasiestücke, Joaquin Turina’s Silueta nocturna from El Castillo de Almodóvar. The remaining pieces, including some that are almost completely unknown, appear willy-nilly, with no particular reason for them to show up in the order in which they are presented and with little attention to the overall flow of the disc: Debussy’s Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon, Glazunov’s La Nuit, Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne, Op. 10, No. 1, Fauré’s Nocturne, Op. 33, No. 3, Grieg’s Nocturne, Op. 54, No. 4, a work by Arthur Vincent Lourié (1892-1966) called A Phoenix Park Nocturne, Paderewski’s Nocturne, Op. 16, No. 4, a piece by Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) called The Night Winds, and Glinka’s Nocturne “La Separation.” All those nocturnes, all that nocturnal atmosphere, threaten to become soporific, and the similar mood of many of the pieces on this (+++) disc does interfere with full enjoyment of Lin’s playing. This is a case in which the music is very well performed, but is of variable quality and rather too much sameness of mood for the CD to be fully effective or fully satisfying.
The issue is somewhat different with the (+++) Naxos CD featuring Myron Silberstein playing solo-piano works by Norman Lloyd and Peter Mennin. Five of the six works here are world première recordings, and everything is played very well indeed, but much of the music is simply not distinguished or interesting enough to get a wholehearted recommendation. The best pieces here are the most ambitious: Lloyd’s piano sonata of 1958 and Mennin’s of 1963. Lloyd’s work is large-scale and carefully crafted, while Mennin’s is even more impressive in its craggy intensity. Neither work really breaks new compositional ground – both are firmly rooted in the ideas and techniques of American music in the middle of the 20th century – but both neatly encapsulate the sonata form as it was developed and solidified at that time. The other music here is not at the same level. Mennin’s Five Pieces for Piano (the only work on this disc that has previously been recorded) and Lloyd’s Five Pieces for Dance, Episodes for Piano and Three Scenes from Memory are all brief assemblages of moderately attractive miniatures, somewhat interchangeable in sound even though Lloyd and Mennin generally had differing compositional styles. There is nothing really uninteresting about any of this music, all of which Silberstein plays with sure-handed understanding, but neither is there anything particularly compelling here except in the two sonatas.