August 14, 2014
(++++) KEYBOARD MARVELS AND EPIGONES
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-6. Arthur Schoonderwoerd, fortepiano and conducting Cristofori. Alpha. $34.99 (3 CDs).
Frederic Rzewski: Four Pieces; Hard Cuts; The Housewife’s Lament. Ralph van Raat, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Carter Pann: The Piano’s 12 Sides; The Bills; The Cheese Grater—A Mean Two-Step; Your Touch. Joel Hastings, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Cameron Carpenter: If You Could Read My Mind. Cameron Carpenter, organ. Sony. $11.98.
Rare, rare, rare indeed is it to find a recording that is a must-have for music lovers, but that is exactly what Arthur Schoonderwoerd’s version of the complete Beethoven keyboard concertos is – yes, all of them, complete, including the Op. 61a piano version of the Violin Concerto, Op. 61. These performances, recorded in 2004 (Nos. 4 and 5), 2007 (Nos. 3 and 6), and 2008 (Nos. 1 and 2) are truly revelatory, and for that reason utterly magnificent. They are not grandiose – indeed, quite the opposite. And they are not even piano concertos – at least, not quite. They are fortepiano concertos, and Schoonderwoerd proffers them in one of the most historically accurate and thrilling recordings to be had anywhere, involving any music. These are recordings that, more than any other currently available, show with absolute clarity the ways in which Beethoven was a composer both of his time and beyond his time. They are a perfect introduction to a world in which the Classical era was giving way to the Romantic through a portal named Beethoven.
These are concertos for an instrument spanning five, five-and-a-half or six octaves, not the 11 of a modern piano. They are concertos written for such an instrument, and here played in earlier versions (when such versions exist) rather than as the music was later emended to take advantage of larger, stronger, deeper, more resounding instruments. These are concertos written to be conducted from the keyboard, which means that, to keep the ensemble together, the soloist plays as continuo in the tutti passages, where he is not in the limelight. This alone dramatically changes the sound and impression of the works. And the ensemble itself is not an orchestra by modern definition – it is a chamber group, with just one pair of violins and one pair of violas, a single cello and bass, and distinctly and appropriately modest complements or woodwind and brass, plus timpani that penetrate the sound thrillingly whenever they appear, more like lightning than distant thunder. These are concertos meant to be played on an instrument such as the original Johann Fritz fortepiano of 1807-1810 used in Nos. 4, 5 and 6, or on an Anton Walter instrument of 1800, a facsimile of which is used for Nos. 1, 2 and 3. These are narrow-key instruments, close kin to harpsichords, with a shallow fall (about 6 mm, compared with 10 for a modern piano) and – depending on the manufacturer and date of the instrument – with knee levers instead of pedals; or, when they did have pedals, perhaps with four of them. Heard on this recording, Beethoven’s concertos retain their ingenuity and forward-looking compositional elements while fitting to an absolutely perfect extent into the world of Mozart and Haydn. Never has it been clearer how indebted to those earlier masters Beethoven was; never has it been clearer to anyone but a non-specialist how many were the ways in which he moved beyond them – not surpassed them, but moved in new directions that made the Romantic era possible as piano technology developed apace and as the notion of a conductor as a non-performing orchestral leader started to emerge after 1820 (although the performing conductor remained important in many circumstances; witness the Strauss family and its Viennese competitors). Schoonderwoerd’s elegant, poised, beautifully balanced, nuanced, sensitive Beethoven concertos are scarcely the only ones available on fortepiano – the fine version of Nos. 1-5 by Melvyn Tan with the London Classical Players under Roger Norrington comes immediately to mind – but no one but Schoonderwoerd places the works so firmly, and so thrillingly, in their historical context, while at the same time providing such absolute and total pleasure – a chance to journey back in time and to appreciate Beethoven’s genius all the more as a result. No matter how many versions of the Beethoven concertos you already own, this one on Outhere Music’s Alpha label is, to repeat, a must-have.
A major shift in mental, emotional and auditory gears is required to move from contemplating the fortepiano era to thinking about the piano as used by contemporary composers Frederic Rzewski (born 1938) and Carter Pann (born 1972). New (+++) CDs from Naxos clearly show where the piano, and composers for it, stand today. The comparative gigantism of the instrument itself has long since been taken for granted, and today’s composers are often concerned with extending the piano’s considerable capabilities (and those of the pianist) even further than have previous composers. Even musicians such as Rzewski and Pann, who accept the piano as it is – as a percussion instrument that also partakes of some of the subtleties of the strings used to produce its sounds – frequently try to take the instrument to its sonic and emotive limits, albeit without feeling it necessary to “prepare” the piano to turn it into something it was never designed to be (or have the pianist sprawl over it to pluck or bow its strings, as some modern works require). There is actually a Beethoven tie-in in one Rzewski work here: The Housewife’s Lament (1980) is a set of variations on a 19th-century tune written by an anonymous composer who was audibly influenced by Beethoven – although Rzewski’s variations are clearly 20th-century in sound, technique and focus. His Four Pieces (1977) run the gamut from lyrical warmth (again, in 20th-century style) to dynamic drama, their Andean dance rhythms reflecting the now-common use of comparatively exotic, folk-music-based elements as building blocks. Folk rhythms permeate Hard Cuts (2011) as well, in a work that – unlike the others here – is clearly built with the minimalist style that many modern composers favor. Ralph van Raat performs all the music with sure-handed understanding, as Joel Hastings does the very different music of Pann. The Pann CD is dominated by the full-hour The Piano’s 12 Sides (2011/12), a kind of songs-without-words cycle whose dozen movements are intended to encompass pretty much all the moods of which the instrument is capable: lyrical, sardonic, introspective, virtuosic, danceable, forthright, strange and intense. The piece makes its points rather obviously and goes on at somewhat too much length, but it has many effective moments even though, as a totality, it does not quite hang together. The shorter works on this CD are complementary. The Bills (1997) shows clear ragtime influence; Your Touch (also 1997) is the slow movement from Pann’s Piano Concerto and is suitably quiet, restrained and jazzy; and The Cheese Grater—A Mean Two-Step (1996) is fast-paced, bouncy and intense.
The intensity is more performer-focused than music-related on a new (+++) Sony CD called Cameron Carpenter: If You Could Read My Mind, its title combining the performer’s name with that of a Gordon Lightfoot song heard on the disc. This is the sort of crossover CD that is aggressive about what it is doing: Carpenter plays what he calls his International Touring Organ, an instrument that he had built to his own specifications to combine sonic elements from cathedral and cinema organs from around the world. The grandiosity of the concept is coupled with a celebrity orientation here, the celebrity being Carpenter himself or perhaps Carpenter-plus-instrument, but certainly not the music. There is nothing particularly bad in what Carpenter offers, and his Bach Organ Sonata BWV 530 and Scriabin Piano Sonata No. 4 performances are respectable if scarcely revelatory. But this is primarily a “look at me!” disc, or rather a “listen to what I can do!” one. Carpenter overdoes the elaboration of the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, and in a different way overdoes Bernstein’s wonderful Candide Overture by making it sound like honkytonk music. Carpenter throws a little bit of everything into this disc: Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise (Op. 34, No. 14); Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion; Marcel Dupré’s Variations sur un Noël pour grand orgue; “song paraphrases” including the Lightfoot work plus Burt Bacharach’s Alfie, Leonard Cohen’s Sisters of Mercy, Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s Pure Imagination, and Bob Montgomery’s Back in Baby’s Arms; and Carpenter’s own Music for an Imaginary Film. The juxtapositions might work in concert or on DVD, with the audience’s focus being on Carpenter the performer rather than on the works being played, but here the mixture just sounds self-indulgent and a little silly. What Carpenter wants to do is show things off: his organ and his own playing. What he does not want to do is showcase the music – the works are means to an end, the end being self-aggrandizement. And while this is perfectly acceptable (and even expected) in celebrity-oriented pop concerts, one tends to hope for more from a medium (CD) where the sounds are the things that matter. Carpenter certainly has talent, as his own work and his dabblings in Bach and Scriabin show. But they are dabblings, indulgences in search of ways to keep listeners’ attention on Carpenter and his instrument rather than interpretations where what counts is the music and what the composer was trying to communicate with it. Despite a few impressive elements, this Carpenter disc is a musical disappointment – although fans of Carpenter (one of those obviously being Carpenter himself) will undoubtedly revel in it.