September 18, 2014
Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals; Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, transcribed by Claude Debussy; Variations on a Theme of Beethoven. Ferhan and Ferzan Önder, pianos; Zürcher Kammerorchester conducted by Howard Griffiths. Christophorus. $14.99.
Scarlatti: Sonatas K96, 381, 119, 197, 135, 322, 109, 141, 492, 146, 11, 17, 27, 87, 380, 209, 101 and 29. Igor Kamenz, piano. Naïve. $16.99.
Scott Pender: Music for Piano and Strings—Veil of Ignorance; Rhapsody, Elegy and Finale for Violin and Piano; Sonata for Viola and Piano; Sonata for Cello and Piano. New England String Trio (Julia Okrusko, violin; Lilit Muradyan, viola; Ming-Hui Lin, cello); Peter Sulski, violin and viola; David Russell, cello; Geoffrey Burleson, piano. Navona. $16.99.
Music for a Princess—works by J.S. and C.P.E. Bach, Buxtehude, and Nicolaus Bruhns. Annette Richards, organ. Loft Recordings. $18.99.
Yves Ramette: Organ Music. Yves Ramette, organ. Navona. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Considered as a work for two pianos rather than a jocular, lighthearted portrayal in music of multiple creatures, Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals is music requiring considerable virtuosity and a fair amount of nuance. The section called Pianists is, of course, purely for amusement, with the two performers sounding as if they are walking impatiently back and forth in a cage, like many animals in zoos of old. But the rest of the work is considerably more subtle where the pianos are concerned, requiring very different treatment in, for example, Royal March of the Lion, from what is needed in Aquarium and Aviary. It is the subtlety of Ferhan and Ferzan Önder that makes their 1997 performance of this work, now available as a Christophorus release, so delightful to hear and at the same time so aptly amusing – and the accompaniment by the Zürcher Kammerorchester under Howard Griffiths is in entirely the same spirit. The result is a thoroughly engaging performance. Debussy’s transcription of the violin showpiece, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, is another matter: the transcription itself is very well done, and certainly the work is quite well played here, but this music is distinctly violinistic rather than pianistic, and falls somewhat flat despite the quality of the Önders’ performance. There is no such quibble, however, about their handling of the Variations on a Theme of Beethoven, an infrequently heard Saint-Saëns piece originally written for two pianos and displaying considerable skill with the variation form as well as what is clearly a heartfelt tribute to a composer whom Saint-Saëns greatly admired.
Igor Kamenz clearly admires Domenico Scarlatti, and there is no question that his playing on a new Naïve CD is at the highest level. That is the good news. But while the performance itself is a (++++) one, listeners who remember that Scarlatti composed his wonderful sonatas for harpsichord rather than piano will find this more of a (+++) release – giving Kamenz full credit for skill but not for the way he expands the sonatas and fully utilizes the piano’s sound palette. There are some composers whose work seems often to transcend the instruments on which it is played – Bach is the clearest example – and certainly pianists have long since adopted Scarlatti’s music as their own. But Kamenz here seeks to make 18 of the 555 sonatas into something they were never intended to be: a kind of suite, organized by key, content and emotional impact. This is interesting, but it is not Scarlatti. It is far more justifiable, for example, to present a selection of the sonatas by giving some of the earlier ones, then some of the middle-period ones with their enormously complex hand-crossings, and then some of the later ones – in which the hand-crossings largely disappear and the emotional compass takes center stage. Kamenz, however, deliberately juxtaposes sonatas from Scarlatti’s fairly well-delineated compositional periods, then performs the works with fluency and even pathos beyond what the harpsichord can communicate. The result is a highly effective Kamenz piano disc that is not a highly effective Scarlatti one. Admirers of first-rate pianism will revel in this recording; Scarlatti aficionados, however, most likely will not.
The audience is certain to be smaller for the Scott Pender music on a new (+++) Navona CD entitled 88+12, an overly cute reference to the use of the piano’s 88 keys and the 12 strings of violin, viola and cello combined. Actually, only Veil of Ignorance (2010, revised 2011 and 2013) fits the “88+12” description, and it is a work filled with gestures, from the dramatic to the lyrical and from the modernistic/minimalist to the almost-Romantic. The title refers to the work of philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002), who is unlikely to be familiar to most listeners and whose thinking is in any case not reflected in the music in any particularly apparent way. The “veil of ignorance” concept is a form of social contract in which participants do not know in advance where they stand in an imagined society. That would seem to invite aleatoric music, which, however, is not what Pender produces. However, listeners, unlike the performers, may find themselves somewhat unsure about where they are at any given time during the three movements of Veil of Ignorance. The remaining three works on this CD are “88+4” ones, and they are more immediately appealing. Rhapsody, Elegy and Finale for Violin and Piano (2009), its title but not its sensibility reminiscent of Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale, is filled with mood and textural contrasts. Sonata for Viola and Piano (2009) is a more-intense work, subtitled “From Old Notebooks” because Pender created it using material he sketched in the 1980s. Sonata for Cello and Piano (2009, revised 2013) is the longest work on the disc and a piece of considerable lyricism and mostly deliberate pace. All the performers handle the music with considerable skill and a level of give-and-take that is appropriate for even the most recently written chamber music. The solidity of the piano parts in the three works for solo string instruments helps anchor the music effectively.
There is fine keyboard playing of another sort, on the organ, in a recital by Annette Richards of music from the library of Prussian Princess Anna Amalia – who, like Anna Magdalena Bach, maintained a “notebook” (really an extensive music collection) of works that she herself played. A number of these works were in fact by J.S. Bach; those performed here include the Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 537; the Pièce d’Orgue, BWV 572; “Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele,” BWV 654; and “Ich ruf zu dir,” BWV Anh. II 73, arranged by C.P.E. Bach – whose own Sonata in G minor, a comparatively forward-looking work, also appears on the CD. In addition, Richards offers Buxtehude’s Toccata in F, BuxWV 156, and “Nun komm, der heiden Heiland,” the only surviving chorale fantasia by Nicolaus Bruhns (1665-1697). There is also a brief Duetto (Fugue) here by Princess Anna Amalia herself. Richards performs on a new (2011) Cornell University organ modeled on the 1706 Schnitger instrument of Charlottenburg Castle, Berlin; this is the first recording of the new Anabel Taylor Chapel organ. The melding of the new instrument with this particular blend of music is not always ideal, given the difference in sonic quality between the Cornell space and that of old Berlin. But Richards’ performances themselves are well-proportioned and carefully structured – although the works do not flow from one to the next in any particularly apposite sequence. This Loft Recordings release is a (+++) CD featuring fine playing of some music that is, in the main, not especially unusual; the “library of the princess” frame is more a convenience than a doorway to any particular profundity.
The solo-organ music of Yves Ramette (1921-2002) is a doorway not only into the composer’s thinking but also into his performing: the works on a new two-CD Navona release were recorded by Ramette between 1965 and 1993. Ramette played a Cavaillé-Coll organ in Paris, with all the grandeur implied by that instrument’s provenance coming forth in the four pieces heard here. An extended Toccata et Fugue is titled “In Memoriam Georges Guynemer” and is a tribute to the World War I flying ace (1894-1917); the work has all the grand gestures one would expect from its form as well as its dedication. Pour une Nuit de Noël is a three-movement celebration of the religious meaning of the season. Solum in Modum is a lengthy two-movement work in which Ramette carefully explores old forms in movements called Concerto and Riccercare. And Pastorale, which is also quite extended, ventures beyond its title into general expressions of beauty and wonder. The music could probably have fit on a single CD – the first disc here lasts only 28 minutes, the second 54 – but releasing it on two may encourage listeners to hear only some of it at any given time. The music benefits from that treatment: it is well-constructed and clearly heartfelt, but elements of several of the pieces are on the portentous and even pompous side, and Ramette does not always sustain throughout a work the moods and emotions he evokes early on. This (+++) release will be of considerable interest to anyone familiar with Ramette who wants to hear him as performer as well as composer. The music here is not, however, as readily accessible to listeners unfamiliar with Ramette as are some of his works for orchestra or instruments other than the organ.