July 03, 2014
(++++) PIANISTICALLY SPEAKING
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5; Five Variations on “Rule, Britannia”; Andante favori; Seven Variations on “God Save the King”; Bagatelles, Op. 119. Ingrid Jacoby, piano. Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Jacek Kaspszyk. ICA Classics. $24.99 (3 CDs).
Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 6—Volume IV, “Quatre hors d’oeuvres et quatre mendiants”; Volumes VI, X and XIV (excerpts); Waltz in E-flat. Alessandro Marangoni, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, Op. 37b; Six Morceaux, Op. 19. Pavel Kolesnikov, piano. Hyperion. $19.99.
The Transcendentalist—Music of Alexander Scriabin, John Cage, Scott Wollschleger and Morton Feldman. Ivan Ilic, piano. Heresy Records. $18.99.
Even the best-known works in the piano repertoire can seem fresh and new when approached with the level of understanding, thoughtfulness and sheer elegance that Ingrid Jacoby brings to the Beethoven piano concertos in a new three-CD release from ICA Classics. Jacoby has a remarkable way with this highly familiar music. It is not just that her technique is limpid, fluid, articulate and exemplary in attention to rhythm and phrasing – although it is all those things. What it also is, though, is analytical – not academically so, but in a way that places these five concertos firmly within the time of their composition and within the time of Beethoven’s life when he wrote them. The result is performances that clearly track Beethoven’s growing maturity as a performer (he gave the première of the first four concertos; increasing deafness prevented him from doing so for the fifth) and his increasing willingness to experiment as a composer through what are usually deemed his early and middle periods (there being no late-period concerto). Thus, Jacoby’s handling of Concerto No. 2, the first to be composed, is positively Mozartean, while at the same time showing ways in which Beethoven altered and moved beyond Mozart’s model – through increased willingness to switch to remote keys, for example, and through the off-beat accents of which Beethoven was fond (notably, in this work, in the finale, which uses them to differentiate the last movement from a traditional hunting-style rondo). Concerto No. 1, written second, shows distinct progress in harmonic changes and development, which Jacoby emphasizes while also allowing the music (especially the martial first movement) to assume statuesque proportions. The key of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 harks back, surely on purpose, to that of Mozart’s No. 24, which makes Beethoven’s different handling of C minor all the more striking – and here it is not only Jacoby highlighting the differences but also Sinfonia Varsovia under Jacek Kaspszyk, which provides absolutely first-rate accompaniment throughout this set. And these versions of Nos. 4 and 5 are thoroughly remarkable: the questing quietude of No. 4, and its highly unusual structural elements (notably in the second movement), are brought forth with great lucidity, while the monumental scale and grandeur of No. 5 stand out triumphantly from start to finish – but Jacoby and Kaspszyk also allow the meditative simplicity of the second movement to flow with absolute naturalness. Jacoby complements this excellent concerto cycle with some solo-piano music that serves to remind listeners that Beethoven was quite as capable of writing lighter, slighter occasional pieces as he was of composing transcendent ones. The Andante favori, originally planned as the slow movement of the Waldstein sonata, builds beautifully here. The two sets of variations on British melodies are more overtly entertaining and certainly lighter, but are quite cleverly constructed and take the term “variation” into realms beyond those explored by Beethoven’s predecessors. The late set of Bagatelles stands in strong contrast to Beethoven’s more outgoing piano music, with an inward focus, gentleness and charm that Jacoby brings out to excellent effect. Beethoven has rarely sounded fresher or better understood than in Jacoby’s finely nuanced performances of both the concertos and the solo music.
It is the solo piano music of Rossini through which Alessandro Marangoni is marching with all deliberate speed and very considerable skill in an ongoing series for Naxos. It is easy to forget the extent to which Rossini’s life and Beethoven’s overlapped: Rossini was born in 1792, Beethoven died in 1827, and both were at the height of their fame and productivity during that 35-year period, with Rossini’s operatic successes continuing for only a few more years (Guillaume Tell dates to 1829). Yet Rossini’s piano music is considerably later, dating primarily to the last decade of his life and included mostly in the frequently charming, often odd, occasionally bizarre albums that he collectively called Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”). Salon pieces the piano works from these “albums” may be, without the broad scope and high intensity of Beethoven’s piano music, but they have a definite kinship with works such as Beethoven’s sets of variations on British patriotic songs and, in a different way, with miniatures such as the Beethoven Bagatelles. Rossini proved himself in these pieces to be a master of the small as well as a highly adept creator of works in forms ranging from bagatelle (so described) to variation (so described) to nocturne (not so described) – and some forms that Rossini invented himself for no significant reason other than that he felt like it. The sixth volume of Marangoni’s Rossini survey is almost as much a hodgepodge as the entire Péchés de vieillesse themselves: Rossini did not neatly organize the “volumes” into piano, vocal, etc., but tossed pieces into one set or another with little regard for how they were to be performed, or on what instruments (or with voice). What Marangoni is doing is extracting the piano works from the non-piano ones in the Péchés de vieillesse, and occasionally throwing in a piano piece written outside the Péchés, such as the little Waltz in E-flat that serves as an encore to Volume 6 of this series (it is one of a pair of waltzes that Rossini wrote in 1849). This series volume as a whole is something of a grab-bag. Most of it is taken up with Volume IV of the Péchés, a clever set of eight food-related pieces (Rossini was a gourmand). There are four desserts and four appetizers here, although the music really has nothing much to do with the pieces’ titles. Also on Marangoni’s new CD are two bagatelles from Péchés Volume X, the one work from Volume VI that did not fit on an earlier Marangoni release of that volume, and five Péchés from Volume XIV. The funniest work on the disc is the “dessert” item Les raisins (A ma petite perruche), in which Rossini has the pianist talking while playing – saying phrases that Rossini’s parakeet was able to say (including such military exclamations as “present arms” and “fire!”). The following “dessert” piece, on hazelnuts, is dedicated to Rossini’s dog, but instead of containing any yapping or growling (from piano or pianist), it offers some rather Chopinesque filigree and finger work. The Péchés can be determinedly academic: Tourniquet sur la gamme chromatique, ascendant et descendant, from Volume XIV, is an old-fashioned étude that wears out its welcome long before it is over. The Péchés can require a fair among of virtuosity, as in the rather breathless Étude asthmatique from Volume VI. They can show fine grasp of specific forms, as in the theme-and-variation approach of two “appetizers” from Volume IV, “anchovies” and “butter.” And they can be representative of real-world events, as in Petite promenade de Passy à Courbevoie from Volume XIV. Mostly they are simply delightful miniatures, each complete in itself, each telling a small story that evokes a particular emotion or reaction, each a little delight in its own way.
Unlike Rossini, Tchaikovsky is not thought of as someone who wrote pianistic salon music. But The Seasons, first published in 1876 in the Russian cultural journal Nuvellist, fits that description – and was intended, like much salon music, to be playable by talented amateurs. Although certainly not as difficult or complex as the piano concertos, these 12 little pieces (which are closer in spirit to Schumann than to Rossini) occasionally veer off into more-demanding areas, the February Carnival and August Harvest being two examples. In any case, The Seasons is certainly well within the abilities of Pavel Kolesnikov, winner in 2012 of Canada’s Honens piano competition. Interestingly, Kolesnikov does not opt for strongly virtuosic treatment of the cycle, choosing instead to present it with consistent charm and delicacy, letting the music flower and flow quite naturally. It is an unexpectedly mature performance from this 25-year-old pianist, who seems particularly drawn to the poetry of the music. He dwells a bit overmuch at times – in “March” and portions of “May” – but always with sensitivity and a fine sense of the music’s shape. And Kolesnikov does just as well with the Six Morceaux of 1873. The best-known of these, the Nocturne, again calls on Kolesnikov’s poetic sensibilities: he manages to avoid an overly sentimental approach while still making the music soulful. In faster pieces, such as the Scherzo humoristique, Kolesnikov shows that he can handle balletic rhythms and bring out the music’s character with real charm. This very well-recorded Hyperion disc, Kolesnikov’s first for the label, presents a pianist who manages, as if effortlessly, to invest these Tchaikovsky miniatures with distinctiveness, charm and individual character – and to provide the occasional virtuoso flourish when it is called for, as in the final Theme and Variations of the Six Morceaux.
An intriguing but less successful piano CD, The Transcendentalist from Heresy Records, features Ivan Ilic attempting to show the links between the works of Scriabin and those of three more-recent composers – links that are by no means clear from the music selected, for all that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ideas and those of other Transcendentalists influenced all these composers. The overall feeling of this disc is a meditative one, but the specific pieces Ilic choses do not illustrate Transcendentalism – whose core belief was the essential goodness of Nature and humans alike, unless people are corrupted by societal institutions such as political parties and organized religion – particularly well. There are eight Scriabin pieces here, the first two followed by John Cage’s Dream, the next four by Scott Wollschleger’s Music Without Metaphor, and the final two by Cage’s In a Landscape and, at the end of the CD, Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari. The sequencing does not make for any strongly compelling argument, and the juxtaposition of the Scriabin pieces themselves seems, if not arbitrary, rather difficult to fathom. The first pairing is of Prelude in B, Op. 16, No. 1, and Prelude in B-flat, Op. 11, No. 21. The four-piece Scriabin sequence includes Guirlandes, Op. 73, No. 1; Prelude in D-flat, Op. 31, No. 1; Prelude in G, Op, 39, No. 3; and Prelude in E, Op, 15, No. 4. The final two-piece Scriabin offering is Rêverie, Op. 49, No. 3, and Poème languide, Op. 52, No. 3. Rearranging the Scriabin sequences – easy to do on a modern digital player – produces no significant change in the CD’s effect, and moving the non-Scriabin works about also seems to make little difference. If Ilic is suggesting that all these works are “of a transcendental type” in some way, that is not particularly clear from the presentation. Indeed, if one wishes to argue commonality of orientation or experience among these composers, one could as well point to Scriabin’s synesthesia or studies in mycology and try to produce connective tissue, musical or otherwise. The actual performances here are quite fine and earn the CD a (+++) rating. There is, however, a certain sameness to the music that borders on monotony, and the argument that leads to the title of the disc never really gels. Not for the first time, it is worth remembering Leonard Bernstein’s famous statement that music does not mean anything. And this is true to matter how much one attempts to make it mean something specific.